The Magazine

Among the Iowa Democrats

From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: Great moments in presidential campaigning.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By DAVID TELL
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Waterloo, August 13

ACCORDING TO THE piles of data released each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Iowa has weathered the recession fairly well. Its seasonally adjusted July unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, tied with Maryland for ninth lowest in the country, and markedly lower than the 6.2 percent national figure. In fact, among states with a labor force totaling more than a million, only Virginia (4percent) is doing any better.

Still, Iowa doesn't much feel like Maryland and Virginia at the moment--and not just because Iowa has endless corn and soybean fields no more than ten minutes from the center of even its biggest cities. Iowa feels straitened. If you drive around awhile with the radio on pretty much anywhere in the state, it's rare you won't hear a local news story about some company that may be closing a plant and laying off a few hundred workers, or a 30-second ad indicating that some other company might be willing to hire you for $7 an hour. You see things, too: If you find yourself on the northeastern outskirts of Waterloo, Iowa, for example, it's hard to miss the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers Union (PACE) strikers who are picketing the Eagle Ottawa Tannery over health insurance and wage proposals.

And if you happen to be continuing on into downtown Waterloo--on this or any other random day between now and next January, come to think of it--chances are excellent that you'll bump into a Democratic presidential candidate. Or several Democratic presidential candidates. Each of whom will talk you blue in the face about how the Eagle Ottawa situation is typical of Iowa's current economy. And how it's all the fault of a man named Bush.

There are no fewer than six such White House hopefuls here this afternoon, making back-to-back, half-hour solo auditions before a plenary session of the Iowa Federation of Labor's annual convention. It's a Q & A format, with the Qs coming from an all-star panel of union-movement bigshots led by AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka and Service Employees International chief (and Democratic National Committee member) Anna Burger. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina gets to answer first.

It remains the collective wisdom of the non-traveling Washington press corps--an impression largely formed by a single, stumbling Edwards performance on "Meet the Press" back in May 2002--that, whatever his other talents, he isn't very good at interview-quiz affairs like this one. Maybe so, but today, at least, he more than holds his own. Edwards has a graceful, warm, and winning presence, switching back and forth easily and appropriately from smiles to seriousness. And his seriousness is impressive: thorough, crafty, and bite-sized all at once. He is canny enough to mention the Eagle Ottawa strike, announcing that he'll make a show-of-solidarity appearance with the PACE workers later in the day. He parries a tough, direct question about his past support for NAFTA by reeling off a long list of anti-free-trade votes he's cast in the Senate. And where a candidate like, say, Howard Dean sometimes makes fluent discussion of specialized, hot-button labor concerns resemble a spelling-bee contestant's mnemonic trick, there is nothing antiseptic about Edwards's presentation. Union interests are a "personal issue for me," he tells his audience. "My father was a textile worker."

The pappy reference--there'll be three of them before he's through--elicits snorts at the press table, where really earnest note-taking doesn't get underway until John Kerry enters the room. Edwards finished a distant fifth, tied at 5 percent with "Uncommitted," in an August 3 Des Moines Register preference poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers. And though he's since made a significant Iowa television buy (on a trio of ads which highlight his roots in a "family of sharecroppers") and taken a marathon bus tour of the state with his wife and kids, it's true his campaign still lacks that ineffable buzz that always surrounds a genuine contender. Nevertheless, several hundred Iowa Federation of Labor delegates like John Edwards a lot. He gets a standing ovation.