Politics & Policy

Afternoon Check-in

Pre-caucus notes from Iowa.

Council Bluffs, Iowa – “I’m going to need your help,” said a young woman, approaching me from the side and failing to notice my press pass. “The governor is going to be coming out in a minute, and I need some people to get the crowd going.”

I apologized and told her I wasn’t going to be able to do anything for her. “Whoops!” She moved away to find help in another part of the crowd of 300 or so that had gathered on a frigid evening in West Des Moines to see and cheer Mitt Romney.

Romney’s rally, one of several that day, appeared a success. Typically, the campaign had chosen a venue a bit too small for the crowd, which generates more excitement — and they seemed very enthusiastic, for Republicans. Afterward, I scrambled to talk to as many regular Iowans as possible — people who were caucusing, and who were not with the campaign. I first approached a young man whose name was Mark Neville.

“Actually, my dad and I drove out from Salt Lake to volunteer,” he said. He had made 50 phone calls for Romney during the day.

I asked another youngster if he was going to caucus — “Sorry, I’m here from Miami.”

I guessed that many of the young people were volunteers, so I began targeting middle-aged and elderly men and women.

“Sorry, I’m from Illinois.”

“Arizona.”

“Missouri.”

“Kansas.”

By the time I found an actual Iowan, I had approached seven non-Iowans at random.

“I’ve been for Romney for about a year,” said Steve Faux, a 55-year-old from Clive, a close-in suburb of Des Moines. “I feel he’s the most competent leader running for president right now. He has a long history of solving problems and he has strong conservative values.” After Faux, I found Ralph Watts, a Republican state representative from Adel who is backing Romney. By then, the crowd had mostly dissipated, except for reporters with that hungry look in their eyes, searching out more caucus goers.

Just how many Iowans had been there, anyway? How much of the cheering was from out-of-state volunteers?

This problem was not limited to Republicans by any means, even if their voters are more depressed about their choices. After hitting a relatively unenthusiastic joint appearance by Bill and Hillary Clinton (who showed up half an hour late), I rushed to an Obama rally to catch the tail end at Hoover High School. In the parking lot, the license plates were from Maryland, California, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois — and yes, there were several from Iowa, too.

Inside, it took four tries before I met an Iowan, 18-year-old Amanda Hicks, who attends Hoover. She remained undecided.

I asked her, if she were to pick Obama, why would it be?

“I think that he can unite people better than anyone else,” she said.

And theoretically, why would you choose Hillary?

“I don’t know.”

At her rally in Des Moines’s Historical Society building, Hillary Clinton was clearly tired. Her rhetorical style, which had improved over the course of the campaign, had returned to what it once was — a back-and forth between a bedtime story and angry shouting, complete with the same repetitive hand gestures. Her act had been preceded by a young male staffer who did everything he could to kill the crowd’s ardor.

Still, she took a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook of 1980, when he lamented the “malaise” of the Carter years. “After seven years, there is this sense of fatalism that has affected us,” she said. “But I don’t believe it. Since when did America become the ‘can’t-do’ nation?”

A few notes for tonight’s caucus:

Democratic turnout will far outstrip Republican. A local reporter in Council Bluffs put it this way: “The Republicans are saying, ‘What’s the best of a bad choice?’ The Democrats are saying, ‘We have a lot of good choices, which one do we pick?’”

Good weather may help Hillary turn out older women, but bad weather would have been much more harmful to Edwards, who dominates the rural areas. The evening will be cold but clear.

Any success for McCain is unexpected, considering his opposition to ethanol and his relative failure to do anything in the state. The contest for third place is between him and Fred Thompson, who has surged in one poll but continues to lag in others.

As the late polls show, Mike Huckabee is not as dead as the Washington press corps would have you believe. The local news is abuzz with the controversy over anonymous mailings to Evangelical pastors, telling them their tax status will the threatened if they become actively engaged in the caucus. The night before last, Huckabee drew 2,000 people to a rally in West Des Moines — very large by Iowa standards. One huge base of his support is here in western Iowa — the large Dutch Reformed community in the northwest.

But Huckabee’s campaign is also clearly disorganized. Former Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist, a Romney backer, told me that he has received four phone calls from Huckabee’s campaign urging him to vote, despite the fact that he told the callers the first time that he will be caucusing for Romney.

— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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