Small-town Iowa nears the end of 4-year frenzy

Amid scrutiny, voters set to stand up for candidates

January 18, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CORNING, Iowa - They have turned off their answering machines here - otherwise campaign workers fill them up with taped appeals and no one else can leave a message - so every time the phone rings they have to answer it. But even if it's - surprise! - someone calling from a campaign, they'll still listen patiently rather than cut off the caller.

"Iowans can be irritatingly polite sometimes," says John McMahon, the pharmacist in this small town in the southwest corner of the state.

But every four years, Iowa's civility gets tested. Politicians and news media representatives from less genteel parts of the country noisily swarm into the state because it stages the first presidential contest in the nation - the caucuses that will be held tomorrow night in each of Iowa's 1,993 voting precincts and that will help determine the course of the campaign as it moves to other states.

And this year, intense interest in the caucuses has state officials predicting a record turnout. With a larger than normal field of eight Democratic candidates and a tight race among four of them, the amount of campaign and news media attention that has rained on Iowans this time surpasses that in any previous caucus.

Even here in Adams County, the least populated in the state, everyone who wants to has had a chance to meet candidates, or surely any number of their surrogates, or has been interviewed by an out-of-town reporter.

"We've had Howard Dean and John Edwards in the county, and I've been in the same room at least with John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, as well, in Bedford and Creston," says Tim Ennis, the chairman of the county's Democratic Party, listing the candidates he has had contact with both on his home base and in neighboring towns. "I almost have to pinch myself to realize what kind of access and opportunity anyone in Iowa has to the candidates."

Both Ennis and McMahon will hold caucuses tomorrow night in their homes, an increasingly rare setting as the state becomes more urbanized and communities choose to meet in a public place, such as a school gym or a fire station. But in rural areas, caucuses are often held in houses, sometimes because there aren't enough public buildings.

The caucuses, little understood outside Iowa, are vastly different from the primary elections that other states use. Rather than retreating behind a curtain to vote anonymously, caucus attendees literally have to stand up - before God, their friends, their neighbors and everyone else - and publicly declare which candidate they are for.

The process starts with caucuses-goers dividing up by the candidate they support. One candidate's followers may gather in the living room, for example, while another's may head to the dining room.

After everyone is in place, the real fun begins: Iowa's quirky caucus rules say that a candidate has to have the support of a certain percentage of attendees; otherwise that candidate is not "viable" and will be allotted no delegates to the county conventions that begin the process of choosing who goes to the national nominating convention. (The percentage for viability varies by a complicated formula, but most commonly it is 15 percent.)

What all this means on caucus night is that supporters of viable candidates have to persuade those allied to nonviable candidates to join their side. Horse-trading, arm-twisting and the like can ensue.

In small towns like Corning, the net effect is that in some precincts, caucus-goers have to unite behind a few or even a single candidate. At a caucus where only a handful of people shows up, you can't divide into too many groups and still achieve viability.

In rural areas such as this, caucuses offer residents more power than they usually wield. It is why, among other reasons, a trailing candidate such as Edwards has spent so much time in rural Iowa: He can get more bang for the buck because he has to persuade fewer people than he would in a larger urban precinct.

"We're a small enough population that one person can make a difference," says Ennis, who is supporting Dean. "We have one lady taking up the cause of Edwards really hard, and she's convinced some people."

That would be Pat Kennedy, a retired businesswoman who will hold a caucus in her Corning home tomorrow night. Although some believe that caucuses work better in a neutral setting such as a school or library, Kennedy and others say their support for a candidate won't intimidate anyone.

"It will be civil," Kennedy says. "In a small town like this, it's friends and neighbors coming into your house. We'll have coffee, and a couple of people will bring cookies."

"At the caucuses, people will listen to you, and try and convince you without any hard feelings," says McMahon, who recently let it be known that he is for Kerry, while his wife, Bev, continues to take a neutral public stance. "These are the same people you go to church with, that you see at the grocery store."

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