A View from Iowa: The Clinton-Obama Dust-Up

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama greets supporters during a rally in Des Moines, Iowa February 21, 2007.

As an Iowan since 1990, this is my fifth caucus season. Yet again, I am struck by the remarkable opportunity Iowans get to see our presidential candidates up-close-and-personal.

My kids, now 14 and 15, have seen and often shaken hands with many a famous politician. George Bush visited their elementary school and they went on a school field trip to an Al Gore rally downtown. When my son's friend fell off the monkey-bars at his downtown school playground, a Secret Service agent came to the rescue. The candidates aren't just downtown, they're in our neighborhoods, eating at our local diner, knocking on our doors, driving by in motorcades of dark-tinted jeeps. "Any calls?" my husband asked me one fairly typical day before the caucuses in 2004. "Yup," I replied. "The Little League coach and John Kerry inviting you to a 'little barbeque.'"

This year seems different, given the early start to the race and so many "rock star candidates." I don't remember seeing this much excitement, especially among the Democrats, especially at the huge Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama rallies. I wonder if Iowans will grow weary, especially as the rock stars need to appear in coliseums and convention halls to meet the early, popular demand. But as the campaigning goes on and on and on, how many rallies for how many candidates can an ordinary Iowan enthusiastically attend? The people at Obama's recent town hall in Des Moines already seemed far less pumped than those at campaign events just a few weeks earlier. And though it drew 2,200 people on a Wednesday night, the rally apparently wasn't as full as expected. Minutes before the rally's start, teen-age volunteers quickly stacked several rows of chairs that were still empty.

As for the dust-up between Clinton and Obama? What dust-up? Talk to Iowans, especially Democrats, about this week's set-to between the Clinton and Obama campaigns and you can almost hear a collective "Oh give me a break." Some worry about the possibility of "Swift-boating" to come. "For negativity to start this early is ridiculous but inevitable," says Megan Peiffer, 22, a Des Moines Democrat who works for a local nonprofit. "It will do more harm than good." Alan Young, 44, president of the teachers union in Des Moines, adds "Most folks in Iowa do want to hear and talk about issues. We're not as much into the show."

Not that some Iowans — especially political activists and insiders — weren't talking about the Clinton-Obama fracas. At Obama's appearance in Des Moines, it was the hot topic among folks waiting for the event to start. "About half the people just thought it was kind of headline-grabbing by Hillary and would have no effect," says Dr. Alan Koslow, 54, a Des Moines Democrat. "The other half thought it would hurt Hillary." The topic also popped up immediately but briefly the next morning during a breakfast meeting between Obama and Iowa minority leaders including Ted Williams, president of the African-American Business Association of Des Moines. "He was statesmanlike. His focus is 'I'm not here for that,'" says Williams. "He didn't badmouth Clinton. He's not stupid. He knew that would not be a good tone, that is not presidential… Our focus was more substantive.”

Still, if the dust-ups continue between the Clinton and Obama camps, some see an opening for other Democrats, including Senator John Edwards, with his widely-admired grassroots organization and lingering popularity from 2004 when he came in a strong second in the caucuses. Another potential beneficiary could have been former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a sentimental local favorite, but he announced Friday that he was already giving up his long-shot campaign. "If all the attention is on Obama and Clinton now and they do damage themselves, why, it's really hard to say. People come from behind," says Pat Harms, 73, a retired librarian in northwest Iowa who voted for Howard Dean during the last Iowa caucuses.

The Republicans also could gain. By comparison to the Democrats in Iowa, the GOP has seemed dispirited. But, says Isaiah McGee, 27, a Republican who is vice-president of the African-American Business Associaiton of Des Moines, "Anytime you see a lack of unity from the other side, there is a benefit for the opposite party."

Still, it is so early in this wide-open race that no one dares to offer a firm prediction — except that voters, now more than ever, won't tolerate mudslinging. "The bulk of us who are active will ignore it," says attorney Robert Josten, 64, a Des Moines Democrat. "We will not let it be silly... the candidates are going to hurt themselves as much as they hurt each other if they play the childish games." "It diverts our attention from the real issues and it's annoying. Americans are so frustrated right now and really want to see clear leadership and serious attention to what's going on in this country," says Jackie Romp, 42, a Des Moines Republican. "Tell us what you're going to do, what you believe in and how you're going to get it done."

Certainly that seemed to be the thrust of Iowan questions at Obama's Wednesday event: cancer research, mental health care, health insurance, nutrition in the schools. Ordinary Iowans will continue to make the most of their caucus process for as long as it lasts. And these dutiful Midwestern citizens, my friends and family among them, will continue to view it all as a very serious responsibility. Call me naive or sentimental, but I find this inspiring.