Despite Chaotic 2008 Calendar, Iowa Still a Necessary Stop

Posted May 25, 2007 at 4:39pm

Back in 1987 when I served as deputy campaign manager for then-Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) White House bid, I found myself in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the dead of winter. The weather was atrocious — and to make matters worse, I could not get an AM or FM signal on my car radio. [IMGCAP(1)]

With weeks remaining until the Iowa caucuses, I knew a victory there would give Gephardt much-needed momentum as we prepared for the next round of states. As I drove around that winter from one county to another talking up the candidate and trying to help him close the deal, I began to appreciate the value of having early contests, spacing out the primary calendar, and forcing candidates to get beyond their well-tested sound bites and stump speeches.

One thing I will never forget: The Iowans really know how to look into your soul. Perhaps it’s the weather or the terrain, but with gentle smiles and friendly manners they soon get down to the business at hand: Why do you want to become president of the United States and what are your qualifications for that office? Trust me, they will not commit to any candidate who doesn’t show up and honestly answer those questions in their presence. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who came in second in 2004, has done that and is therefore leading all other Democratic contenders in the most recent statewide polls.

For better or worse, the road to the White House starts in 229 days when voters from all walks of life will gather in union halls, public libraries and gymnasiums across Iowa to discuss the candidates for the presidency. That is, if the candidates even bother to show up and spend time getting to know the people who will decide who enters the primary fray with a win under his or her belt.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made the right decision in announcing that she will spend credible time and resources to campaign in Iowa soon after a staff memo suggesting she skip the state’s caucuses altogether was leaked to the media. And why not? She is, after all, the national frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and is seen by most political analysts as someone who can secure both the nomination and the presidency.

Too bad for Mike Henry, the deputy campaign manager who allegedly wrote the memorandum. Perhaps he was trying to lay options on the table to help the campaign recruit the 2,181 delegates needed to win the nomination without breaking the bank or Clinton’s stamina.

There have been candidates in the past who skipped the Iowa caucuses and still managed to win the presidency, but not many. Ronald Reagan did it in 1980, and Bill Clinton did it in 1992 (it should be noted that Iowa’s own Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was running that year). But when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried it in 2000, followed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (D) in 2004, they all lost.

The list of candidates who have made this gamble and won is far shorter than those who have tried it and failed.

In this wide-open electoral cycle, it would be a serious mistake for any of the presidential candidates to concede Iowa without a fight. In that vein, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) needs to screw his courage to the sticking post and compete in the Ames straw poll. Many of his advisers say that nothing can be won by competing, and while that may be true, much can be lost by failing to participate. One of Giuliani’s main selling points is that he is a “strong leader.” Strong leaders show up, stand up and fight, even if there’s a chance they may lose. Cowardice is unbecoming to Giuliani.

Competing in Iowa is the warm-up round for the main event Feb. 5, when voters in more than 20 states will cast their ballots. It takes people-centered politics, political muscle and a developed organization to win Iowa. It takes people on the ground — both locals and those from elsewhere — to pound the pavement and make personal connections. And, like everything else in politics, it takes money. It takes money to get your message and candidate out across the state. And you must be prepared to go back again and again until they commit to attend the caucuses on your behalf.

Whoever emerges victorious on caucus night will prove to the country that he or she has whatever it takes to go all the way. With the primary schedule in shambles after all the leapfrogging and political jockeying, I do not envy the strategic choices candidates will be forced to make. Front-loading has made it even more difficult for frontrunners to cherry-pick the states more palatable to their political standing or credentials. It was grueling in 2000, and unless both major parties, in conjunction with governors and state legislatures, sit down and hammer out an acceptable plan to conduct the next presidential election, the political calendar will become increasingly problematic.

When the lead strategists of top-tier candidates with millions in the bank consider skipping a key contest, it’s clear something is very, very wrong. Unfortunately, most of us who have been down this road a time or two can tell you with all honesty: There is no easy (or cheap) way to win the nomination. The road to the White House starts in Iowa, and if you can find a way to get to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. by sacrificing its seven electoral votes in the general, bring it on.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.