Politics & Policy

Iowa Surprise?

Is North Carolina senator John Edwards really on a roll, or is he just the media’s flavor of the month?

A very astute political operator in South Carolina told me last week, well before the late surge by Edwards and Massachusetts senator John Kerry, that whoever won Iowa would go on to win South Carolina. And he predicted that person would be John Edwards.

It shouldn’t be, given the relative weakness of Edwards’s Iowa organization headed into tonight’s caucuses. Caucus turnout is greatly influenced by organization and, while Edwards has picked up some momentum and campaigned in all 99 counties, his Iowa cochairman Rob Tully says the campaign is only fully organized in about 75 of them.

And yet there are three good reasons to keep your eye on Edwards tonight:

IOWA LIKES SOUTHERNERS: The Iowa caucuses created the Jimmy Carter candidacy. George W. Bush won there handily and even Pat Robertson of Virginia did surprisingly well in the Hawkeye state. Maybe it’s a rural thing, or maybe it’s the drawl, who knows?

IOWA LIKES SURPRISES: John Edwards is polling well–in second or third place in some polls–so it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise to close observers if he pulled out a win. But to the typical American, who’s currently more interested in New England’s Tom Brady than John Kerry, an Edwards win would be viewed as a major upset of presumptive nominee Howard Dean.

Just as they did for Carter, Gary Hart, and George McGovern, the Iowa caucuses could launch a relative unknown yet again.

IOWA LIKES TO ARGUE: This isn’t a primary, it’s a caucus. You get together, you spend a couple of hours talking to your neighbors, you debate, and then you pick sides. Some recent polling showed that half of all those attending the caucuses might possibly change their minds tonight. There could be significant votes up for grabs.

Dean’s caucusers are going to be obnoxious granola-crunchers. Dick Gephardt will have thick-armed union members menacing the crowds. Kerry’s team will share anecdotes they heard on NPR. But John Edwards is a trial lawyer–he will be represented at many of the caucuses by fellow lawyers.

Trial lawyers, particularly experienced litigators, make their living persuading small groups of civic-minded people dealing with difficult decisions. It’s very possible Edwards could start the evening in fourth place and end up in first.

I don’t know if my friend is right about South Carolina or Edwards’s strength in Iowa. I still believe irrational anger is the flavor of the month among Democrats. And Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean have larger organizations in Iowa, a fact that cannot be overstated. Organization beats enthusiasm almost every time.

But I’ve got my eye on Edwards tonight.

Michael Graham, a radio-talk-show host in the D.C.-South Carolina area, is an NRO contributor.

Michael GrahamMichael Graham was born in Los Angeles and raised in South Carolina. A graduate of Oral Roberts University, he worked as a stand-up comedian before beginning his political career as ...

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