In Iowa, Democrats campaign despite holidays

An unwelcome avalanche of speeches, calls, TV ads

December 25, 2003|By Jeff Zeleny and John McCormick | Jeff Zeleny and John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - There will be some extra visitors, perhaps unwelcome ones, hovering in the homes of Iowans during this holiday season.

Whether on television, in daily telephone calls or in an endless string of literature that has deluged Democrats for months, the party's presidential candidates are barely slowing their campaign operations over Christmas and New Year's.

The arrival of the holidays doesn't change the fact that the Iowa caucuses are only 25 days away, the first critical stop in the 2004 presidential race.

Why else would Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts plan to ring in the New Year at the community theater in Sioux City?

Each of the leading presidential hopefuls plans to spend several days in Iowa before year's end, underscoring the importance and intensity of the Jan. 19 caucuses. But the Christmastime campaigning has touched a nerve with some Iowans.

"There is a time to call it off and let families enjoy one another," said Kay Harms, a retired teacher from Waukee. "We're inundated with campaigning the rest of the year. Enough is enough."

The holidays, though, can be a fruitful time for candidates to reach undecided voters. And the season provides a bridge to an intense January campaign when candidates will again try to slow the surge of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

It was the day after Christmas in 1987 when a television commercial opposing free-trade agreements jump-started the presidential candidacy of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who 16 years later is Dean's chief rival in Iowa. At the time, Gephardt's ad was the only one on the air, and weeks later, he won the caucuses.

This year, with nine Democrats fighting for the nomination, Iowans have been barraged with a record $4 million worth of television spots that began over the summer and have continued during the holidays.

"They don't want to bother people," said Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "But on the other hand, people are at home and watching a lot of television."

In Council Bluffs on Tuesday evening, as Gephardt ended a three-day Iowa swing, the congressman seemed almost apologetic as he greeted an audience of about 75 Democrats in the ballroom of a Travelodge motel.

"I want to begin by wishing all of you Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and happy holidays," said Gephardt, his voice hoarse and scratchy. "I appreciate all of you coming out this close to the holidays. I know you're busy."

Kerry wrapped up a 24-hour Iowa campaign marathon Tuesday, meeting with nurses and factory workers and farmers. Elsewhere, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina signed copies of his new book, Four Trials, in South Carolina. And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut worked at a food pantry in New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first primary, Jan. 26.

While Dean planned to spend the holidays in Vermont, some of his aides said they would be preparing for today's arrival in Iowa of up to 500 volunteers to begin an effort to knock on 200,000 doors and reach more than 50,000 voters by phone.

Strategists for several candidates conceded they were afraid to rest during the holidays because they feared that rival candidates could take them by surprise and gain ground on the pool of undecided voters.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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