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.

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.

In the meantime, though, he's raising the most money, too, and the Des Moines Register poll has him on top, a within-the-margin-of-error hair in front of presumed favorite Dick Gephardt. So we might as well go ahead and call Howard Dean the Iowa front-runner--and take note of some subtle hints that he is adjusting his campaign pitch accordingly. His trademark, that lacerating, almost surreal contempt for Bush, remains in place: If the president had his druthers, Dean characteristically remarks at one point this week in Iowa, "you'd still have 12-year-olds working 12 hours a day in the cotton mills six-and-a-half days a week. . . . I honestly believe people like George Bush and Tom DeLay would go back that way if they could." Me, I don't honestly believe that Howard Dean honestly believes any such thing, actually. But I believe he figures it profits him to say so, just as I believe he simultaneously figures it's otherwise time for him to tone down his last-angry-man persona and concentrate on consolidating and protecting the early lead he's eked out for himself.

Dean has begun regularly attending to his rivals in a way he never used to, aggressively looking for opportunities to respond to their jibes and make light of their competing proposals. Here in Waterloo he uses a question about Social Security from Richard Trumka to knock down Dennis Kucinich's repeated--and accurate--charge that he's flirted with structural entitlement reform in the past. "I will not support" any increase in the Social Security retirement age, Dean promises, and "privatization will be off the table." Certain unspecified candidates whose health care blueprints are significantly more ambitious than Dean's--meaning Dick Gephardt--get the back of his hand: "It makes us feel good to take on the insurance companies and the AMA and all that stuff, but it doesn't get the plan passed," and "I want a plan designed to pass." A similar measure of self-conscious realism has even crept into Dean's conversation about foreign policy. Sort of. No longer does he describe his famous opposition to the war with Iraq as a matter of fundamental principle--that the invasion was unwarranted by any sufficiently grave threat to American security interests. Nowadays he claims to have opposed the war "because I didn't think the president was telling us the truth about why he was sending our kids over there." This is a pretty nifty trick of revisionism, since it precisely and not coincidentally echoes recent complaints against Bush made by Sen. Kerry and thereby complicates the Kerry team's ongoing whisper campaign to paint Dean as a military-averse defense weakling.

Only at the very end of his IFL appearance--with an obviously calculated, on-off-switch abruptness--does Dean let loose his crowd-pleasing Howard-the-Insurgent routine, turning red in the face and hollering that Democrats have to "go to the base first and get the base excited and not forget who put us here in the first place." Because, lookit, he says, much more quietly, the "most important issue" is "who can beat George Bush."

Meet Howard Dean, the betting man's safe-money, pole-position horse. It's a cool performance, on balance. Chilly, even.

Oh. Dennis Kucinich is in Waterloo, too. He, too, goes redfaced--and bounces up and down on his toes, and blows spittle all over the microphone, and makes the P.A. system fuzz over with earsplitting distortion. But Kucinich does this nonstop, the whole time he's on stage. He can't help himself. That's just the way he is.

Iowa Falls, August 13

A COUPLE HOURS after the Sullivan Brothers convention center event wraps up, I'm 60 miles away to the west, in a cafeteria at Hardin County's tiny Ellsworth Community College, trying to puzzle out why it is that "Doubts Prevail in Iowa on Gephardt Victory," as the cruel but hard-to-argue-with headline in this morning's Des Moines Register puts it. Gephardt's been a familiar presence in the state for 15 years, ever since he won the 1988 caucuses. This time around, he alone among the Democratic wannabes has nailed down any formal labor-movement support: endorsements from 11 major union internationals to date, with a twelfth (from PACE, the Eagle Ottawa strikers' parent outfit) scheduled to come in about a week. All together, these unions represent more than 30,000 registered Iowa voters, fully a third--maybe even more--of the total number expected to participate in January's balloting. But still the Gephardt campaign finds itself upstaged by Howard Dean, lagging in the polls, lagging in fundraising, lagging in pizazz. How come?

Dean's staff aides will tell you that labor loyalty to Gephardt is purely a front-office phenomenon--that rank-and-file workers, actual voters, feel no special affection for the congressman. But that can't be right. Earlier this afternoon, when it was Gephardt's turn to speak in Waterloo, right after Dean and right before Kucinich, he was treated like the pope. He got a standing ovation merely for walking through the door, before he'd said a word. The rank-and-filest of convention delegates, dozens of them, left their seats carrying disposable cameras, walked quietly to the front of the hall, like it was the most important thing they'd ever done, and took memorial snapshots of the man. And then he began to talk, and the rank and file were rapt.

"I'm the guy that fought my own president, President Clinton, on trade," Gephardt reminded them. "I respect all the other candidates in this race," but "let me tell you something: Most of them were for those treaties when they were in front of the Congress." So "before you come down on this race, check the record. I'm there. I've always been there." Even as a child he was there, Gephardt went on: "My dad was a Teamster and a milk truck driver in St. Louis," which was the "best job he ever had," a lesson Lou Gephardt regularly impressed on young Dick during dinner table devotionals about the priceless value of organized labor. Little of this story was true, as it happens. In real life it seems that Gephardt's father was a rock-ribbed Republican who hated driving the truck, hated Harry Truman, and hated unions, all unions, his own included; he'd joined the Teamsters simply because it was the only way he could get his dairy-delivery job after being laid off as an insurance company bookkeeper during the Depression. But the IFL conventioneers didn't know this history, and it might not have made any difference if they had. In Waterloo, Gephardt was boffo, a star. "I will be there" in the future, he swore at the close, to a second, thunderous standing ovation. "I will be there for you and your families and for the hardworking people of this country."

The question remains, then: What's the problem with Gephardt's campaign?

Seventy-odd people are with me in the Ellsworth Community College cafeteria at 7:30 on a Wednesday evening, here to "meet the candidate" and chuckling rather too indulgently over the antics of an entirely unexpected (self-professed) celebrity while they wait. This would be one Daniel R. Vovak of Greenwich, Connecticut, who's wearing a Halloween-costume colonial-patriot wig, and telling anyone who'll listen that "I'm running for president, too," though at age 31 he is constitutionally ineligible for the office--and even were he 65, he'd still be an obnoxious pain in the ass. Vovak clearly has a bad case of ariannahuffingtonitis: an unquenchable craving for undeserved fame. So he makes a beeline for the man standing next to me, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who's already had the pleasure of making President Vovak's acquaintance. Whereupon, back on planet Earth, Dick Gephardt finally comes through the door, only to be set upon by Wig Man. "I'm running for president, too," Vovak tells the startled Gephardt. "I'm running for president, too," he repeats, when he realizes that the ABC camera crew hadn't had the sound on at first.

Fools happen on the campaign trail, and not every candidate suffers them gladly; Howard Dean, one imagines, would have barked Vovak's ears off. But Gephardt is not Dean. Gephardt is unusually, almost painfully nice. So he spends endless minutes chatting up this latest jerk to grab his hand. And he then spends endless further minutes chatting up all the other, comparatively ordinary people in the room. These people, too, are rapt, just as the IFL convention attendees were earlier in the day. Gephardt tells his "daddy was a Teamster" story again--and it works, again. Gephardt tells the story of how his then-2-year-old son Matt was diagnosed with a rare cancer and given just four weeks to live: Matt is alive today, more than 30 years later, only by "a gift of God"--and also through the grace of a generous health insurance policy that ought to be every American's birthright, and will be once Dick Gephardt is elected president.

Matt's cancer crisis shows up verbatim, right down to the heart-rending catch in dad's voice, in virtually every Gephardt stump speech, and . . . well, hell, I'll say it: The damn thing starts to feel just a wee bit creepy and exploitative after you've heard it the sixth or seventh time. But nobody else in tonight's audience appears to be put off in the slightest; maybe news of Matt Gephardt's triumph over the Big C is only now reaching Iowa Falls. For whatever reason, you can hear a pin drop while the elder Gephardt remembers aloud how he knelt down on the family's bedroom floor, "tears streaming down my face," and prayed with all his might for his little boy's life.

It goes on like this, minus the pathos, for 40-plus minutes: a serious major-party presidential contender who's effortlessly got 70 likely Iowa caucus-goers eating out of his hand.

And then, as Gephardt fields one final question from the floor, there emerges a first faint hint why Lou and Matt--and a down-the-line pro-labor voting record, and an undeniably attractive personality, to boot--might still not be enough to put him over the top. A man wearing a baseball hat, a pair of shorts, and sandals starts reading Gephardt a typewritten lecture he's prepared in advance. It's "perfectly clear, crystal clear" that George W. Bush "lied" us into war with Iraq, he says. But "none of that really matters, because Republicans and Democrats" in Congress banded together and gave the president "permission" for his dastardly adventure. "Why," the man fairly snarls at Gephardt, "should I vote for you--or any other Democrat?"

The atmosphere is suddenly tense. Chairs shuffle. People murmur. But Gephardt keeps his cool and very politely, very firmly, stands his ground:

We had 15 years of intelligence, from the Clinton administration, from the CIA during the Clinton years, and I talked to lots of the former officials at the time from the Clinton administration. We had information from the U.N., from intelligence services of a bunch of European countries, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had components of weapons of mass destruction, had the ability to quickly make more weapons of mass destruction. He had used weapons on his own people. In 1991, when we got into the country after Persian Gulf War I, he was one step away from a nuclear device. What we're worried about is an A-bomb in a Ryder truck in New York, in Washington, in St. Louis, in Los Angeles. . . . In my view it cannot happen. I'm going to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening. . . . And I'm not saying I'm right and everybody else is wrong. But I had to call it the way I saw it. And I believed that this was a step that we needed to take to keep our people safe. . . . [And] I will never back down from trying to do my best to keep this country safe.

There've been times in Gephardt's career when he's made significant position flips for political convenience. Back when he was a junior congressman he was a stalwart pro-lifer, for example. But there've been other times when Gephardt's proved himself admirably stubborn about his views--even when they threatened to cost him votes. And this may again be one of those times; Iraq may be costing him votes right now.

After the meeting breaks up and people are starting to make their way home, I ask Gephardt's questioner, 48-year-old Bruce Johnson, whether he could ever see his way clear to voting for a candidate who'd backed Bush on Iraq. "No," Johnson tells me. "I'm looking at Dean right now."

Newton, August 14

NEEDLESS TO SAY, many Iowans are looking at Dean right now. And as many of them as could jam into Uncle Nancy's Coffeeshop here in Newton, 35 miles east of Des Moines, got a good close gander at him early this morning--but saw nothing much he didn't want them to see. Backslapping and schmoozing are not Dean's principal repertoire. He talks to people mostly, not with them. And he rarely departs from script, even while routinely faking his audiences into thinking he's a world's-greatest, virtuoso ad-libber. At 8:45 A.M. sharp, right on schedule, Dean strode briskly into Uncle Nancy's, all but ignored his Jasper County chairwoman's highly unorthodox introduction ("The candidates on most issues are pretty close," she acknowledged), and launched directly into his current, standard spiel.

There was the requisite splash of gratuitous acid to the president's face; it was here that Dean shot off his child-slavery sweatshop barb. There was the tactical repositioning on Iraq: Dean saying he'd objected to Bush sending "our brothers and sisters and our parents and our children to a foreign country to die without telling the truth to the American people about why"--but Dean never revealing what he thinks that "truth" might have been. Then there was some bragging about Dean's gubernatorial record in Vermont. And a piece of grand-finale red meat about how Democrats can only beat "the most conservative, right-wing president in my lifetime" by planting a defiant, unembarrassed bootful of traditional liberal-progressive principle right in Bush's keister.

And then Dean started slowly for the door, delaying himself only for an abbreviated session of handshakes and impromptu conversation with The People. During which he managed to slide away--instinctively, completely, and apparently quite successfully--from the only potentially dangerous encounter in his path. Norma Jean Sharp, a 70-year-old former nurse who now runs a small home-furnishings business on Newton's modest downtown commercial strip, wanted to know what Dean's positions on abortion and Israel were. Sharp is passionately committed to the state of Israel, she later told me. She's also passionately opposed to abortion, having been abandoned on a doorstep in Wyoming as a baby. And at least until recently, she's considered herself a very strong Republican.

None of which Howard Dean had any reason to suspect when Norma Jean Sharp asked him her questions. But still he somehow divined that the best thing to do was fudge. Abortion: It's irreducibly a moral issue, and "we're never going to resolve that," and Dean prefers to move along to the "90 percent of stuff we agree on" in America, most of us anyway. Israel: "They'll be all right. . . . I'm not going to let anything bad happen to Israel. My wife is Jewish."

I asked Sharp what she'd thought of the governor's responses. And it turned out she'd been satisfied: Dean was just what she'd been looking for--"halfway intelligent" and "more for our country than what's happening now," President Bush having displeased her in various ways neither of us had time to explore. And was she aware that Howard Dean is an uncompromising, Roe v. Wade, pro-choice purist, I wondered? I immediately regretted the question: It sent a cloud of distress across this nice lady's face. "I did not know that," she whispered, shaking her head.

Later on, around noontime, in the basement of Des Moines's Corinthian Baptist Church, John Kerry attended an invitation-only lunch meeting with "African-American leaders" convened on his behalf by Iowa civil rights legend Willie Glanton. And the contrast with Dean could not have been starker. Kerry is much the more personable, easygoing man, and he consequently makes the better first impression. For most of half an hour Kerry chomped down barbecue sandwiches, like he does it every day, while making casual, discursive chit-chat with his hosts--and thoroughly charming them, every last one. And yet before the lunch was through, Kerry had managed to partially un-charm a strikingly beautiful older woman named Catherine Williamson who complained to him that neither he nor any of the other Democratic would-be presidents was speaking to her "biggest concern." To wit: "This country that is based on Judeo-Christian principles has given in to the people who might be offended if we have the Ten Commandments someplace and if our children pray in school. And I think somebody better start talking about that."

Try as he might, Kerry just couldn't find a graceful way to retreat before this unhittable curveball. "Well, Catherine, I--I--you know, I'm not sure, I--I'm very understanding and very sympathetic to what you just said. I--I--I know where you're coming from, and I don't hesitate to talk about--when asked--my faith, or what I believe. Or don't believe." But "I do believe there's an appropriate separation where we are a nation of people of all faiths. And of no faith. That's who we are as a country." The poor fellow blundered on like this for quite some time. Catherine Williamson sat stony-faced with her arms folded resolutely across her chest.

In his more controlled, set-speech campaign appearances, Kerry likes to quote Bill Clinton on the only reason why Republicans are sometimes able to outmaneuver Democrats on Election Day: "Strong and wrong" beats "right and weak" every time. Well, here's a new one for you senator, try it on for size: Diffident and shrewd, like Howard Dean, is gonna beat amiable and relatively guileless, like John Kerry, more times than John Kerry can probably afford.

Kerry has an easier go of it this evening at his own Newton meet-and-greet, also in Uncle Nancy's Coffeehouse. And also with Norma Jean Sharp in attendance. She's back, almost 12 hours after her encounter with Howard Dean, to do a little side-by-side comparison shopping. And she decides she "much prefers" the amiable and guileless model. She "particularly" likes Kerry's answer on Israel: "I have always supported Israel. . . . In the end, Israel is the only democracy and Israel is our ally." The subject of abortion never comes up. I don't have the heart to tell Ms. Sharp that Kerry, too, is a pro-choice 100 percenter. That'll be President Bush's job, if and when the time comes. And if he dares.

Iowa State Fairgrounds, August 15

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, during the hours between John Kerry's encounters with Catherine Williamson and Norma Jean Sharp, there was another all-candidate cattle call at Drake University in Des Moines. It was structured as a single-issue policy seminar, a "Conference on Public Health" emceed by Iowa's Democratic governor, Tom Vilsack. And higher-minded spectators no doubt found all three-and-a-half hours fascinating. But a fair number of the rest of us might privately confess that we were bored out of our skulls, that we awakened only for a few rare moments of novelty--or outright gaffes--from the candidates. Most of which welcome distractions had nothing whatever to do with health care.

Kerry tried to get himself onto this morning's front pages by criticizing--demagogically and, it would later turn out, inaccurately--the Bush administration's role in a complicated dispute with Congress over Defense Department bookkeeping and supplementary pay for front-line troops in Iraq. That was fun. Dennis Kucinich first had to be verbally coaxed into taking his assigned seat next to Gov. Vilsack--and then had trouble finding his way out of the auditorium. No, not that set of stairs, Mr. Congressman; it leads to the balcony. At last Kucinich reached the stage-left curtain--only to pop back into view in search of a lost bottle of mineral water. Several hundred people laughed out loud. Which was even better fun.

Howard Dean was unremarkable--except when he attempted to explain how "one of the biggest problems" driving medical cost inflation "is us." He seems to have been talking about the need for "wellness" and prevention programs. But the analogy he adopted was bewildering. Last year, Dean offered, his son needed an emergency appendectomy. And Dean, he ruefully admitted, had responded selfishly: He'd wanted the best of everything for his boy, and he'd expected the insurance company to pay the max. The lesson of this parable, Dean concluded, was that "we all have responsibility" for health care cost containment.

This was just plain weird. What "wellness" steps exactly, was Howard Dean's son supposed to have taken to ward off appendicitis? And what kind of father even thinks to blame himself in retrospect for automatically asking the world on behalf of a seriously ill child? Dean staffers have long known, all too well, that they're gonna have to find ways to humanize their less-than-lovable candidate. And late yesterday they made an initial stab at it, having booked him for an after-work, man-bites-dog musical performance at a blues-club dive not far from Dean-campaign headquarters on the western edge of Des Moines's downtown. There our hero removed his suit jacket, and even his tie, played two tunes' worth of reasonably accomplished though rudimentary guitar, and then closed, on harmonica, with a perfectly goofball anthem--"Dean for America"--written specially for the occasion by local bandleader Michael "Hawkeye" Herman.

It was a standard, 12-bar, I-IV-V chord blues in G, the easiest key for elementary and rusty middle-aged harp-blowers alike. And Dean did not embarrass himself, for the most part, though it wasn't clear he'd agree with that assessment; he seemed mighty uncomfortable to me.

Whatever. The only other interesting news from yesterday was that Sen. Joseph Lieberman would make a previously unscheduled appearance here at the Iowa State Fair this morning.

Lieberman's campaign is limping in lots of places around the country, but in Iowa it's a veritable shambles--mostly because the candidate can't seem to decide whether he should be bothering with the caucuses at all. Friends like John McCain tell him no, he shouldn't: The caucuses are a byzantine, insider steeplechase controlled by the most doctrinaire, party-regular activists--among whom Lieberman's moderate political profile, especially his uniquely dogged support for the Iraq war, is bubonic-plague-level anathema. It's the closest thing to guaranteed that Lieberman can't finish in the money here, so what's the point of trying? Better he should move on to New Hampshire, where the Democratic primary is an "open" one--open, that is, to the independent and crossover voters who would seem to comprise Lieberman's natural base of appeal.

And yet. There's that permanent and infernal pundits-in-the-greenroom, cable-news channel primary to consider: Abandoning Iowa, this early in the presidential calendar at any rate, would surely occasion a great lot of punishing, "Lieberman death watch" chatter on "Crossfire" and the "Capital Gang." Also, the senator has close friends in Iowa, like his local campaign chairman, state attorney general Tom Miller. And Lieberman, a stand-up guy if ever there was one, can't be too eager to let friends like these down.

So he winds up spending very little time here; while most of his rivals were traipsing around the state doing push-ups on hog farms earlier this week, Lieberman was in San Francisco. And then, whenever, as inevitably and regularly results, the muttering about how he's "dissing Iowa" finally becomes too intense to bear--yesterday, for example--the senator scrambles to upend his schedule and pencil in a lightning-strike photo-op. As is the case today. It's the kind of compromise that satisfies nobody. Including, one suspects, the candidate himself.

At 11 this morning, at the epicenter of the State Fair's crowd-thick "Grand Concourse," Joe Lieberman is supposed to hop up onto a bale of hay--bafflingly designated a "soapbox" by its official sponsor, the Des Moines Register--and manfully pretend that he doesn't think he's doing something ridiculous. To his credit, he fails. Lieberman shows up, takes a look at the haybale, curls his lips, and turns around to address the State Fair passersby at sea level, his feet on the ground. He works his way through a first-rate, typically thinking-man-style stump speech--but punctuates it with candid asides that no "natural" politician could ever bring himself to utter. He's the only one of the nine Democrats running for president who voted for--or has anything nice to say about--a piece of Bush-approved prescription-drug legislation that was recently before the Senate. "I don't know why" that is, Lieberman quizzically notes. "It was a good bill."

Fifteen minutes later, having announced himself, with undisguised irony, "the next president of the Yew-nited States of America," he hands off his microphone and walks over to a firing squad of attending reporters, one of whom, a local, wants to know whether Lieberman will be attending yet another candidates' forum this evening, this one at a Teamsters hall in an industrial park southeast of Cedar Rapids, all the way across the state. No can do, he reminds her: It'll be Friday night--the sabbath and all.

And then it's time for the senator from Connecticut to walk over to a fast-food stand and get his picture taken eating--I'm not making this up--a "deep-fried Twinkie." Speaking of the sabbath, one wag quips to Lieberman, how can you be certain that the Twinkie is kosher? "They fry it in soy oil," the senator replies in a blink. "We actually checked that out ahead of time. Because I just knew some sonofabitch would want to know."

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

Next Page