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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None of the men who follow Edwards to the podium does much to confound the little fog of reputational preconceptions each of them carries around with him. Kerry, dressed all the way down to a pair of well-worn sneakers, also wears his usual, effortless Brahmin grin and plays the tough, battle-tested veteran, in every sense of the phrase. Right off the bat, he tells the crowd that it's an honor for "an ex-Navy guy like me" to be appearing in a convention center named for the "Fighting Sullivan Brothers," five Waterloo natives who died in the November 1942 USS Juneau disaster off Guadalcanal. The legacy of men like the Sullivans belongs not to any particular political party or movement, Kerry intones, but to all Americans collectively. Except, apparently, when it belongs exclusively to the AFL-CIO: Those martyred World Trade Center rescue workers whom our Republican president likes to celebrate in his speeches? Well, by God, they "were all members of organized labor and they believed in the right to strike, the right to organize, the right to bargain." Kerry, too, believes in the right to strike; he's already visited the PACE picket line at Eagle Ottawa, he announces, deftly one-upping his colleague Sen. Edwards. And he very much looks forward to debating George W. Bush about these and other heroes, and patriotism generally--because I, John Kerry, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, "know something about aircraft carriers for real."

The IFL people love this stuff; here's a man who can challenge those awful right-wingers on their own thematic turf. Kerry risks losing the room only when he starts pompously droning on about the details of his education and health care proposals--the good guys' thematic turf. "I have the first, biggest, best plan yet. Time magazine called it the best big new idea of this campaign." And so on. Think Ted Baxter from the old "Mary Tyler Moore" show, then add a handsome face, six inches in height, and 40 or 50 IQ points and you'll get the idea.

First as governor and lately as U.S. senator, Bob Graham has won five statewide races in Florida, which is no mean feat, and must have required some considerable skill. So how come Graham is such an unqualifiedly, amazingly, matchlessly incompetent presidential candidate? It is a mystery for the ages. Here in Waterloo he's several minutes into an incomprehensible--and practically inaudible--discussion of an economic-policy white paper he's released before the moderator, IFL president Mark Smith, finally and mercifully interrupts to remind the senator that he hasn't been speaking into the mike. Asked about health care, Graham wanders deep into the weeds, admits he hasn't fully refined his thinking on the subject, promises to make public the "rest" of his health care plan "soon," and then unaccountably blurts out that Dick Gephardt's already-released rival plan has "somewhat set the standard for this debate." By the time Graham starts reading his closing statement, hardly bothering to look up at his audience, there is coughing and chatter throughout the room.

Howard Dean hasn't won anything meaningful yet, but after a months-long run of fabulous publicity coups--including last week's Triple Crown of newsweekly cover stories--his natural air of thoroughbred superconfidence has become more pronounced. Or maybe just more noticeable.

Dean is making a major play for Iowa. He's spent more time here than any of the others. And given his mammoth, $300,000 television ad buy in June, he's spent exponentially more money, as well. The front-loaded spending strategy is risky and questionable. Federal law imposes a roughly $1.3 million limit on Iowa campaign expenditures by candidates who take matching funds, as Dean and the other principals likely will. And though that limit has a fair degree of loophole give in it, the same rules apply to everyone, so there's no way around the fact that Dean's best-financed and more conventional competitors, having husbanded their resources into the fall, will have leeway to outspend him as the caucuses, still five long months away, draw near. To put things in perspective: According to the FEC's most recent quarterly reports, by the end of June the Dean campaign alone had already gone through nearly twice as much money in Iowa as had the Kerry and Gephardt campaigns combined. It's something to keep an eye on.