For Democrats, tale of 2 races

Lesser candidates struggle in shadow of the top three

December 23, 2007|By Scott Martelle | Scott Martelle,Los Angeles Times

MONTICELLO, Iowa -- Christopher J. Dodd walked into the City Council chambers here just before noon last week hoping to persuade local Democrats that he is the best choice for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. But for a message to get delivered, someone has to be on the receiving end, and on this cold, snowy morning, only about 30 people had come out to hear the pitch by the long-serving Connecticut senator.

In a contrast of fortunes that illuminates a key divide in the race for the Democratic nomination, just the day before Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois drew about 250 people to a stomping, cheering 8:30 a.m. rally in a basketball court-sized room in the same building.

Forget about John Edwards' "two Americas." Right now there are two Democratic campaigns - the high-profile, celebrity-studded race being waged by Obama, Edwards and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and another, quieter race by Dodd, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

At the top, Clinton, Obama and Edwards tour Iowa with national media entourages and stride into carefully staged rooms filled with several hundred potential caucus-goers energized by blaring rock music.

And they often have company. Oprah Winfrey has been here with Obama. Retired Los Angles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson toured with former President Bill Clinton. Actors Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins recently campaigned with Edwards, the former North Carolina senator.

At the bottom, Dodd, Biden and Richardson - sans celebrities - rarely see more than one or two local reporters as they greet potential voters by the dozens in lawn sign-decorated rooms small enough to fill with their unamplified voices.

"You could do 10 seasons of American Idol with the [celebrities] who have been to Iowa," Dodd joked after the appearance in Monticello, an industrial town 35 miles southwest of Dubuque.

Still, the lower-tier candidates soldier on, in too far to quit and emboldened by the inherent uncertainty and surprises of political campaigns.

"Iowa's always about expectations," Dodd said. "On the night of Jan. 3, the results come in, and if all of a sudden I'm in third or fourth place here, you're going to have two candidates ahead of me whose campaigns may be over with because they failed expectations. ... So all of a sudden this changes."

But can it change enough? Surprises have happened here before. Yet the biggest challenge that the Biden, Dodd and Richardson campaigns face is finding air to breathe when Obama, Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Edwards, are sucking up most of the state's free-media oxygen.

"There is a legitimate celebrity factor that is exciting," Biden said after a brief talk last week before the Polk County Democratic Central Committee in Des Moines. "You have a woman and an African-American who are serious people making a serious bid."

Biden believes that with less than two weeks until the caucuses, the media spotlight is broadening. And that will mean more exposure for him and the other lightly covered candidates, all of whom are promoting their experience.

"As long as Iowans still think that Iraq is the No. 1 problem that the country faces ... I think I'm going to be the choice of an awful lot of them," said Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"The second tier is dealing with the classic vicious circle, which is that people often say to them, `I really like you, but I do not support you because you cannot win,'" said Dennis Goldford, a political analyst at Drake University.

"They're doing the best they can, but I think basically at this point they're hoping for someone in the first tier to collapse to try to get into that third spot," Goldford said. "The old rule of thumb is that there are three tickets out of Iowa. Nobody who has ever finished worse than third has gotten the nomination."

Scott Martelle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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