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Schmoozing in Iowa

By Barry Casselman

DES MOINES, Iowa. -- The presidential campaign usually begins in Iowa at the Straw Poll in Ames in August of the year before the election. This event is only for the Republican candidates, but it normally marks the beginning of the action in this, the first state to hold a caucus or primary.

This year, with its national front-loading compulsions, the beginning was four months early at the Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines on April 14. All 10 of the major announced candidates signed up to come, plus two minor candidates who were not on the program, and all of them showed up except for Rep. Duncan Hunter whose plane connection was unexpectedly cancelled.

It was neither a debate nor a dialogue. It was a promenade, that is, a stately parade of the aspirants, one after the other, at the dinner with hospitality dessert bashes afterward for dinner attendees so that they could speak one on one, if only very briefly, with the candidates in person.

I think that Iowans, albeit proud and jealous of their-first-in-the-nation role in the presidential role, were not quite ready for the hoopla this early, and for sitting through all of the speeches, I could not help but notice a certain reserve.

The major candidates did their best to get through the reserve. Rudy Giuliani, the surprise front-runner in all the national polls, is a superb public speaker and did well to open the evening. Mitt Romney, the dark horse who trails in the polls but is expected to be a finalist next year, showed off his family and his easy charisma, not only to the dinner crowd, but by placing himself, his wife and his son, Josh in the lobby to meet everyone who came and wanted to shake his hand. Mr. Giuliani was in and out, and did no visible schmoozing, but most of the other candidates made themselves available before and after the dinner.

John McCain, who now trails Mr. Giuliani in the polls (although the margins are narrowing), came just before the dinner, reserving his crowd-mingling for afterward. He made the most dramatic speech of the night, beginning with his pro-life credentials, but making most of his remarks about the ongoing world threat by Islamofascist terrorists. He sobered up and touched an already sober crowd and he received perhaps the evening's warmest applause when he finished.

Former Wisconsin Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson made a passionate appeal as the "candidate of ideas" and listed his impressive resume as an innovator in welfare and education reform.

Probably the least well-known candidate to the Iowa audience, Mike Huckabee, showed himself to be a true son of Hope, Ark. (from where another unknown candidate of the other party had emerged almost two decades before). Giving out his three published public-policy books at his table in the reception area before the dinner and playing guitar with his rock band in a large reception afterward, he demonstrated perhaps the most personality range of all the candidates (what is it about these boys from Hope?)

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Rep. Tom Tancredo from Colorado, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and businessman John Cox, all announced candidates, also made remarks.

Something can be made from each presentation, but the evening tells us little about the contest ahead. Iowa is a grass-roots caucus state, and in spite of all the front-loading maneuvering going on, will still be the first actual voter test in 2008 (even if state officials have to move up their caucus to December 2007 to remain ahead).

While in Des Moines, I drove over to the headquarters of Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Chris Dodd. Most of them had already been there for a while. More candidates will be arriving, but lacking a formal straw-poll event, they will be less focused until autumn sets in.

Mr. Edwards has been here before, and did very well in 2004 (after the Howard Dean collapse made it a two-way race between him and Sen. John Kerry). Mrs. Clinton might have the largest and best-funded organization here, but she has to worry not only about the already well-known and well-liked Mr. Edwards, but also by the upstart candidate of 2008, Mr. Obama, who has Midwest and other themes to play in this state whose Democratic Party is dominated by farmers and labor unions.

My earlier speculation that 2008 might result in no single candidate in one or both parties locking up a nomination until the party convention is now reinforced. Both parties will have numerous serious candidates, but none of them yet appears to have what it takes to obtain a commanding lead after the Super Tuesday primaries.

In fact, I have a contrarian suggestion for one or more of the larger states now contemplating the possibility of moving up their primary to Feb. 5 or before, that is, make your primary later rather than earlier. If, as I am guessing, the nominations will not be decided by Feb. 6, those larger states that hold primaries in April, May or June will get enormous attention, much more than if they follow the crowd to early February.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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