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
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
“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,
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
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
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
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
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
But Axelrod acknowledged that Iowans are angry right
“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
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.”