Sunday, July 22, 2007

"A Candidate Tends His Field of Dreams"

NY Times:
WEBSTER CITY, Iowa — With a train whistle in the background and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass in the air, John Edwards campaigned this month next to a cornfield and a big sign proclaiming: “This is John Edwards Country.”
Surrounding him were about 100 voters, all seated on outdoor chairs provided by the local Congregational church, in a scene that could not have been more picturesquely American — democracy in action at its most intimate level. Even the music of John Mellencamp — “Our Country” — helped make that point.

For Mr. Edwards, Iowa is his field of dreams. He built his campaign strategy on the belief that a victory in the Iowa caucuses next January would propel him to front-runner status and position him well for New Hampshire and the crush of Feb. 5 primaries. Statewide polls that often placed him at the top of the pack here suggested that his hard work in Iowa had paid off.

But Mr. Edwards is facing new challenges and could be in danger of being toppled from his front-runner perch here as Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have been stepping up their Iowa campaigns in recent weeks.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are outspending him, bringing in sophisticated campaign staffs, lining up crucial endorsements and drawing crowds that have numbered in the thousands. Mrs. Clinton generated excitement when she brought in her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign at her side. Mr. Obama has also attracted large crowds, especially on college campuses and among young voters.

“John Edwards cannot take this state for granted,” said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa and the author of “The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process.”

“He has every reason to be concerned that in the next five months Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will pass him,” Professor Squire said. “They are getting more attention and they have a celebrity that he cannot match.”

Mr. Edwards acknowledges that he must win in Iowa, which is the only state holding an early presidential contest where he is on equal footing with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

“Iowa is crucial for anyone, not just me,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview while traveling in a van from Webster City to the roadside hotel where he was staying in Fort Dodge. “It would be hard to win the nomination if you don’t win Iowa.”

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have outspent Mr. Edwards here. The Obama campaign has poured $1.6 million into the state since the beginning of the year, and Mr. Obama has been running biographical commercials on television. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had spent $837,863 in Iowa as of June 30, compared with Mr. Edwards’s $525,027, the most recent federal filings show. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Edwards has run commercials on television.

All three candidates are opening offices in the state at a rapid clip. The Edwards campaign has 15 offices and a staff of over 50, compared with 14 offices for Mrs. Clinton, who has about 100 people working for her, and 28 for Mr. Obama.

In addition, Mrs. Clinton has lined up endorsements from 14 Iowa lawmakers and from former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who had supported Mr. Edwards in 2004. Mr. Obama has endorsements from three legislators and from the state’s attorney general and treasurer.

Mr. Edwards has no state-level endorsements, but his campaign said endorsements would be forthcoming.

In Iowa, Mr. Edwards’s message is stridently antiwar, and he highlights his support of broader health care coverage and an antipoverty theme, issues intended to resonate with Iowa caucusgoers, who tend to be liberal.

Mr. Edwards’s situation is a mirror image of his come-from-behind campaign in 2004, when a strong showing in Iowa propelled him to national prominence. He came in second to Senator John Kerry, and the two went on to become the Democratic presidential ticket.

Participants in the Iowa Democratic caucuses — usually 125,000 to 150,000 people — must show up in a public gathering to declare, out loud and in front of their neighbors, who they are supporting. The caucuses are often seen as a winnowing process that separates true candidates from also-rans.

For Mr. Edwards, any winnowing here could be fatal. He trails Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in financing and in national polls, and some analysts say a poor showing in Iowa will make it difficult for him to rebound, even as he campaigns hard in two other early states: Nevada, which has a strong union presence, and South Carolina, where he holds some regional appeal.

“If Edwards doesn’t do well here, he’s dead, completely dead,” said Dennis J. Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “He can’t survive a second or third place showing here. Obama and Hillary can.”

Mr. Edwards’s 2008 Iowa campaign began soon after the 2004 race ended. Since 2005, Mr. Edwards has made 26 visits to the state, mixing speeches on poverty with old-fashioned politicking. He has visited all 99 Iowa counties, from small towns to big cities, and his campaign is counting on these personal contacts for grass-roots support.

“He came here to talk about poverty more than anything else,” Professor Squire said, “and to do some party-building; but no one thought he was doing anything but laying the groundwork for 2008.”

By comparison, Mrs. Clinton has visited the state 11 times since January, and Mr. Obama has made 17 visits since September 2006, according to data compiled by, a nonpartisan news service.

[All three candidates were back in Iowa last week to meet with union officials.]

Mr. Edwards’s challenge is to not only hold on to the 32 percent of Iowans who voted for him in 2004, but to expand his base — and to halt poaching. Because health care is an important issue in Iowa, the Edwards campaign sent a DVD about his health care plan to every Iowa caucusgoer — an action that was imitated by the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

“John Edwards’s residual support is real,” Mr. Vilsack, the former governor, said in an interview, “and if the caucuses were held today, he’d be in good shape; but his challenge is to grow his support beyond what he got in 2004. He can’t rely on that support to take him all the way.”

Having done well in 2004, Mr. Edwards said he felt better prepared now and noted that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were newcomers to the caucus process, and to Iowans.

“The difference is that caucusgoers know me and Elizabeth,” Mr. Edwards said. “For the other candidates, they are coming from people here not knowing them well and that makes the chore harder for them. My challenge is to make certain that every Iowa caucusgoer knows the specifics of what I stand for.”

On a recent two-day, 10-city tour of rural Iowa, Mr. Edwards stuck to a script. Meetings usually began with Mr. Edwards’s bringing greetings from his popular wife, Elizabeth. He then spoke for 5 to 10 minutes and opened the floor to questions, which usually followed a familiar pattern — Iraq, health care and immigration. He always closed by thanking supporters and asking for the votes of those who were still shopping.

Nearly everyone attending the events, whether at the Fort Dodge Library, the Rustix Restaurant in Humboldt or the middle school in Algona, wore John Edwards stickers. But they were not all supporters.

McKinley Bailey, 26, who served with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a member of the Iowa General Assembly, introduced Mr. Edwards at the Webster City gathering, even though Mr. Bailey, who represents the district, has not endorsed a candidate.

Mr. Bailey said that Mr. Edwards’s strength in Iowa could also work against him should Iowa voters want a fresh face.

“Iowa voters want someone who can beat the Republicans, and that will determine who will win,” Mr. Bailey said. “Edwards’s familiarity will help him in rural Iowa, where he can connect with people and make them feel comfortable, but I think that when he gets to the cities, that could be detrimental. People there are looking for something new, and personal relations don’t mean as much.”

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