Union Tribune

August 18, 2003

Democrat hopefuls find it's difficult to compete with recall


DES MOINES, Iowa The butter cow lady probably never met the billionaire investor, but Iowans in the know took note last week when Duffy Lyon endorsed presidential candidate Howard Dean just a day after Warren Buffett threw his backing behind Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California.

The endorsements, separated by 1,500 miles and considerably different media treatment, said a lot about the contrasts between the high-visibility, high-wattage gubernatorial recall election being waged on TV in the nation's largest state and the quiet, retail-style fight for the Democratic presidential nomination under way here in the heartland.

Their numbers suddenly looking small and manageable now that 135 candidates are crowding the California ballot, the nine Democrats running for president are a little frustrated that the recall election has drawn so much attention away from what they are doing here in the state that will kick off the process only five months from now.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack even felt moved to thank a reporter from a California newspaper for coming to Iowa this week, hailing it as a sign that not everybody was transfixed by what he called the novelty and curiosity of the fight to oust Gov. Gray Davis from Sacramento.

And the candidates continued to press forward with the quiet, persistent campaigning that still measures progress one potential voter at a time. For them, this past week meant pitching themselves to the Iowa AFL-CIO labor leaders, participating in a health care forum with Vilsack, and making pilgrimages to the state fair to flip pork chops, stand on hay bales and down corn dogs all the while carefully staying away from more exotic fare such as the deep-fried Twinkies on a stick.

And in that quiet campaign, the battle for the backing of the butter cow lady was but one more test.

As happy as the Schwarzenegger camp was to bag a respected, normally Democratic adviser in Buffett, the Dean camp was delighted to announce that the former Vermont governor is now backed by Lyon, the 74-year-old grandmother who has been sculpting cows out of dairy butter for the Iowa State Fair ever since 1960.

"Governor Dean is my guy. He has talked about the issues I care about in rural America," said Lyon, who has also produced butter sculptures of Elvis Presley, Mamie Eisenhower and the Last Supper.

Even as they campaign here, the candidates are deeply aware of the fracas in California, at times betraying their frustration that the cameras have moved to the West Coast while they are trying to talk about serious issues in media solitude.

Despite the carnival-like atmosphere currently in California, retail campaigning here in Iowa and the early states will decide who the next Democratic nominee will be, said Jano Cabrera, an aide to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. There is no Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gary Coleman in the group, but they are still an impressive bunch of candidates.

Vilsack expressed hope the California fight will be over soon and noted that the presidential election process is just beginning.

For some of the presidential contenders, though, the battle for support in January's Iowa caucuses is dangerously close to being over. Candidates such as Lieberman and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, once thought to have a real shot at strong support, are fading.

Most perilous is the situation of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, once the heavy favorite here because of his strong labor support, knowledge of farm issues and record of having won the caucuses when he last ran for president in 1988.

But Gephardt, plagued by money-raising woes, has been a victim of the surprising surge by Dean, who has passed Gephardt in the polls here. The most recent Des Moines Register Poll gave Dean 23 percent, to Gephardt's 21 percent and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's 14 percent.

Dean has generated excitement here by being the most outspoken critic of President Bush, particularly on the war in Iraq.

"We've got to find somebody who can beat George W. Bush," said Betty Brim-Hunter, vice chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party and vice president of Local 7102 of the Communications Workers of America. "He is the outsider. He is not Washington and that gives him an edge."

For Gephardt, labor remains the key to his hopes here. Unions may send a third of the 100,000 Democrats who go to the caucuses. They are expected to back Gephardt overwhelmingly over Dean, who Gephardt strategists hope will fade after no more than a summer fling with the voters.

"He's one of us. He has a long history of supporting the unions and were going to be there for him now," said Matt Ballard, 31, an official with Local 90 of the Teamsters. "Teamsters aren't flavor-of-the-day people. We look at the record."