Democratic hopefuls get jump on '04

3 likely candidates pay $65,000 each in early bid to woo Iowa caucus-goers

October 07, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa - For 1,100 Iowa Democratic activists, it was a chance to see a trio of likely presidential candidates strut their stuff and preview the wide-open 2004 contest.

Tickets to Saturday night's fund-raising dinner cost $100. The candidates, who were paraded into the hall down a short runway, like models at a fashion show, paid considerably more - $65,000 each - for the opportunity to speak.

"There aren't many audiences like this in Iowa: 1,100 Democratic activists," said Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a few hours before sharing the microphone with two other hopefuls, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

"I just want 1,100 people to make their judgments about me,'` said Dean, who seems to admire the "canny" way that Iowans milk their prominence in the presidential process to benefit their state party and its candidates.

Iowa, where the quest for the White House begins and presidential activity never really stops, will hold its caucuses in about 15 months. The campaigning in the state, which began last spring, already appears to be influencing the early debate.

Dean, a physician, has spent more than 30 days in Iowa this year, impressing party regulars with his plan for universal health care. In their speeches, Kerry and Edwards were careful to claim Dean's pet issue as one of their own priorities.

`The '04s'

Dean was also the only one of "The '04's," as they're being called, who brought the Democrats to their feet in mid-speech. His protectionist language on trade drew cheers from a crowd that included many representatives of organized labor.

But he still has a long way to go. Toward the end of the evening, the state's senior Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin, twice referred to the governor from the podium as "John Dean."

Iowa's caucus-going Democrats, a liberal-leaning group with a significant pacifist faction, could force the nomination debate to the left on foreign policy issues, too, if Saturday night was any indication.

Reflecting the party's split on the issue, Edwards, a hawk who backs President Bush on Iraq, brushed past the question of military force, saying only that it's "right to stand up to Saddam Hussein." He quickly shifted to a topic more in tune with the audience, criticizing Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft for using the war on terrorism as an excuse "to take away our rights [and] our liberties."

Kerry, who voted against the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution and desperately wants to avoid the "Massachusetts liberal" tag, hasn't said how he'll vote when the Senate decides the Iraq issue this month. In his speech, the Vietnam veteran emphasized the importance of multilateral action against Hussein and warned the administration not to turn its "back on a century of efforts by patriots and presidents of both parties to build an international structure of law and live by higher standards."

Dean, meantime, offered the most dovish view and drew the strongest crowd response, as he linked Bush's war plans to a thirst for Mideast oil. He attacked the president for not telling the country that "if we go into Iraq we will be there for 10 years to build that democracy" and argued that if the United States had a renewable energy program "we would not be sending kids to die in Iraq."

In interviews, the Iowa rank-and-file said they wished their party's leaders in Washington were speaking out more forcefully against Bush's war plans, though several also indicated that Bush was right to want to remove Hussein from power.

Paul Swinton, 41, expressed disappointment with House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt's decision to back the White House on the war, which "cut the legs out" from efforts by Senate Democrats to tone down Bush's war resolution.

The Des Moines lawyer added that former Vice President Al Gore "caught my attention" with speeches attacking Bush's foreign and economic policies and that "it's possible for Gore to light a fire under me again."

Gore, who will campaign in Iowa next week, and Gephardt, who won the 1988 caucuses here, were not invited to speak at the annual Democratic gathering. According to a party spokesman, only prospective candidates who have paid the state party $65,000 for its list of 105,000 previous caucus attendees were asked to come.

With competitive races for statewide and local offices on next month's ballot, "it's still early" for most Democrats in Iowa to focus attention on the presidential contenders, said Rob Tully, a former state party chairman, who, like others here, sees the 2004 race as wide open.

"It's not unusual for a caucus-goer to change his or her mind several times," said Tully, who is backing Edwards.

The freshman senator, an aggressive newcomer, had made seven visits to Iowa this year. Through his political action committee, he has funneled more than $100,000 to local candidates and the state party, sometimes in creative ways.

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