San Diego Union Tribune

December 30, 2007

2008 VOTE: PRESIDENT
Rivals tap voter anger in appeal to Iowans

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa – Wearing worn blue denim overalls and leaning on his cane, Merritt McCardle personifies “Iowa nice” when he talks about his grandchildren and his days in the Navy in San Diego.

 

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But when the conversation turns to either Washington or the price of prescription drugs, McCardle, 74, a retired tool maker, flashes the anger that has transformed both the Democratic and Republican races for president only days before the crucial Iowa caucuses.

“Sure it makes you angry,” he said. “Look who wrote the medical bill in Congress – the drug companies. There is just no doubt that lobbyists have too much power. We've got to do something.”

For McCardle, a heart transplant patient who takes more than 50 pills a day and relies on the Department of Veterans Affairs for his care, doing something means supporting the campaign of Democrat John Edwards. On this day, that meant driving through a snowstorm to listen to the former North Carolina senator make his pitch at Bill's Pizza & Smoke House.

What McCardle saw was a candidate distinctly different from the sunny optimist who finished a strong second in the 2004 caucuses. In his place is a fiery populist who mocks the other candidates for wanting to negotiate with the drug and insurance companies and who hopes to tap into a palpable anger among the electorate here.

It is an anger that keeps Edwards in the race against better-funded rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, as the Iowa caucuses approach Thursday.

“Enough is enough,” Edwards proclaimed in his pitch to about 60 people. “It is time for some truth-telling.”

Heads nodded when he insisted that “corporate greed is absolutely destroying the middle class and jobs in this country.” They nodded again when, without naming Obama or Clinton, Edwards dismissed their promises to invite the drug and insurance companies to the table when hammering out universal health care insurance.

He said it was a “fantasy” to think those companies would voluntarily give up any power.

“You can't nice these people to death. You can't flatter them to death,” he said.

You just have to fight them, Edwards said.

Pollster John Zogby said there is “a huge amount of anger” among voters. “Tapping into this anger is the principal reason” for Edwards' resurgence in the polls, Zogby said.

A similar dynamic is taking place in the Republican race in Iowa. Two hundred miles away, voters nodded in approval when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee railed against the political establishment.

In West Des Moines, Huckabee was introduced by former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley as a candidate for those who are “fed up with what's going on in Washington” and as “not the same-old, same-old.”

In his speech, Huckabee appealed to Iowans who are “completely bummed out” by the system. He told voters that supporting his candidacy is the best way to “confound the political ruling class in this country.”

Pointedly, Huckabee makes no distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats in that ruling class. It is a measure of the Republican president's unpopularity that Huckabee has lost no noticeable support among GOP voters with his much-publicized attack on what he called the “arrogant bunker mentality” of President Bush's foreign policy.

Huckabee's rise in the polls has been steady and coincides with his ability to tap into voter discontent – even to the point of alarming many party conservatives. The Club for Growth, which espouses fiscal conservatism, has stepped up its attacks on Huckabee, decrying his “mix of lefty populism and class-warfare rhetoric that one would expect to hear from the likes of John Edwards or Hillary Clinton.”

Undeterred, Huckabee simply dismissed the group as the “Club for Greed.”

The rhetorical attacks on the political elites by Huckabee and Edwards are not surprising given the mood of the electorate. But they still have come as a surprise to some longtime friends of Edwards who rarely saw that side of him when he was in the Senate.

“I am surprised at just how angry John has become,” said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, another presidential candidate. “This is not the same John Edwards I once knew.”

Voters don't seem surprised. Even those who support other candidates said they understand the anger.

“I'm mad, the Democrats are mad, a lot of the Republicans are mad,” said John Burns, 51, a Des Moines lawyer who supports Obama.

Burns said his Republican father is angry at the way Bush took the country into Iraq even though he supports the war.

Obama and Clinton have their own populist appeals but suggest they take a more constructive approach than Edwards. Change, Obama said, “won't just come from more anger at Washington.”

David Axelrod, Obama's senior strategist, said it is “bewildering” that Edwards thinks you can have health care reform without involving the insurance companies.

“Our predicate is you can be strong and you can be resolute, but you've got to have dialogue,” Axelrod said.

He added: “Anger is not enough. Do you see a deficit of anger in Washington? I don't think that's what we're lacking here.”

But Axelrod acknowledged that Iowans are angry right now.

“There is anger at the inability of Washington to solve problems,” he said. “There is anger at the dysfunctionality of government in Washington.”

This is in a state that has made “Iowa nice” part of the political lexicon, because voters here like to project warmth and civility – and often expect candidates to do the same.

According to a Zogby Poll, almost 80 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa said they are angry at the political system, with that anger extending to the Democratic Congress, as well as the Republican president. The number was only slightly lower for Republicans, with 67 percent saying they are angry.

Although voters were discontented in other elections, numbers this high have not been seen since 1980, when anger at President Carter bubbled over.

There are some differences between Republican anger and Democratic anger, said Zogby, who found that Republicans in Iowa are more worked up over illegal immigration than are Democrats there. But Iowa voters of both parties are increasingly upset over the effects of free trade, which many believe has moved jobs overseas.

Iowans are “in a nasty frame of mind,” Zogby said, with “a huge amount of anger on both sides.”

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