Dems in Iowa: Can They Regain the '06 Spirit?

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Senator Tom Harkin speaks during his 33rd annual fundraising steak fry on Sept. 12, 2010, in Indianola, Iowa

Fifty days before Americans cast their votes in the midterm elections, Iowa, the birthplace of the Obama presidency, is a good spot to get a reality check on Democratic efforts to avoid an electoral bloodbath. The verdict, after a sunny weekend spent with the state's leading Democratic figures and two of the architects of Obama's 2008 campaign and the White House's midterm strategy: the party has got some fight left, but is realistic about what the President's side faces.

The centerpiece of two days of politicking — when the state wasn't preoccupied by Iowa's thrashing of Iowa State on the football field — was the 33rd annual steak fry hosted by Iowa's longtime Democratic Senator, Tom Harkin. One of the great events in American politics, the steak fry invites party activists to gather in a field in this pastoral town 20 miles south of Des Moines for steak (or chicken), baked beans, potato salad and a series of speeches from Iowa Democratic candidates running for high office.

Harkin isn't on the ballot in November, but he used the event, as he does every year, as a fundraiser for himself, drawing a crowd by importing national Democratic figures to rally the faithful with a keynote address. Four years ago, Barack Obama was the star attraction, creating such a buzz, both nationally and in the state whose caucuses launch the presidential nomination contests, that no other single event was more important in propelling him into the race and on to victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

This year, Harkin invited top Obama political strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe to be the featured orators. It's a safe bet that neither man will ever be elected President of the U.S., but it is equally clear that Obama wouldn't be President today if the Two Davids (as they are commonly called) hadn't applied their talents to helping him navigate the electoral process. They returned to the state that spawned one of the greatest upsets in American political history to rally dejected Hawkeye State Democrats to follow the winning Obama model and stem their losses in November.

For Axelrod and Plouffe, the advice is simple. First, don't listen to the press chatter about what is possible. In Obama's case, that meant the conventional wisdom that he wouldn't be able to beat the Clinton machine in the primaries, or win the general election as an African American. The Democratic faithful, Plouffe said on Sunday, can't be discouraged that "the prognosticators in Washington have already called the election." As Axelrod reminded his Iowan brethren, "Every time the purveyors of conventional wisdom wrote Obama off," his campaign and supporters ignored it and fought on.

Second, Democrats have to use voter contact through a volunteer army to reach out neighbor to neighbor and bring all those reluctant, apathetic and first-time voters to the polls. Obama's operation was masterful in boosting voter turnout, first in the Iowa caucuses and then nationwide, when it counted the most. Plouffe exhorted the 1,500 Democrats in attendance to use the same methods over these final few weeks and try to close the gap with the GOP.

Months of high unemployment numbers and other doleful economic realities long ago tilted the playing field against the Democrats in power. Aspects of the multifaceted White House strategy to reset the balance have hit major roadblocks — touting the major achievements of Obama and his congressional allies has fallen on deaf ears, and engaging in partisan quarrels over new legislative initiatives has been equally uninspiring to stressed voters.

But two weapons remain. The Obama Administration is trying to rev up its vaunted mechanics for influencing voter behavior, from absentee-ballot programs to get-out-the-vote operations. Iowa Democrats in particular have built one of the strongest vote-generating efforts for either party in any state over the past few years. And most potent — emphasized by Axelrod and Plouffe above all else — is the chance to make the elections a choice between Republicans and Democrats, rather than a referendum on a President, whose popularity has sunk and whose accomplishments have been overshadowed by high-profile crises such as the BP disaster and the struggling American economy.

Plouffe, who as a young political operative in 1989 worked the Harkin steak fry setting out bales of hay in rows to enhance the rural ambience, conceded two aspects of the inevitability of his party's grim fate to the Iowa crowd and to reporters at a grill-side Q&A before the program. In an admission that was half understatement and half euphemism, he acknowledged that Democrats have "got some headwinds" blowing in their faces because of the weak economy and staunch Republican voter engagement. Plouffe was realistic that GOP momentum would remain strong through November, driving people to the polls to vote for Republican candidates and send a message to Washington and the President. "As a party, we better not make the mistake that [Republican turnout] is going to abate," he warned. Chances for that, Plouffe said, are nil.

Plouffe also suggested that the point of playing up the contrast between the programs and personalities of the two warring parties is not to win over Republicans, or even sway many independents (who months ago were lost to the other side), but to re-engage some of the nation's liberals and disenfranchised voters, who as of now aren't planning to vote at all. The key is to energize and reignite the interest of the 20 million or so first-time voters who were inspired by Obama in 2008.

As the steaks were grilling, Axelrod reminded reporters of Vice President Joe Biden's frequent invocation of a famous plea to voters: "Don't compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative."

That is the Democrats' last, best hope for saving as many of their incumbents as possible. In recent days, surprisingly, they have been aided in this effort by a number of prominent Republicans who have veered into foolhardy lines. Some elected GOP officials have stumbled into rhetoric that has recalled their party's big, bad image as the friend of corporate interests and the wealthy. And de facto conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck lately have raised the hackles of the general public with weird stunts and ugly bombast. At the steak fry, Harkin and Plouffe summoned the specters of Fox News, Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party as if they would jointly assume control of the federal government unless liberals rise up en masse to stop them. And Democratic Party operatives spent the weekend highlighting the latest comments from Gingrich, who suggested in an interview that understanding President Obama required an appreciation for "Kenyan, anticolonial behavior."

In the end, the Democratic strategy may not be enough to energize the base and narrow the enthusiasm gap in a meaningful way. Fifty days is a proverbial lifetime in politics, as Iowa's first-term Democratic governor, Chet Culver, said in an interview, but it could take longer than that to close some of the big polling gaps that exist for many Democrats around the country, even in places like Iowa, where economic conditions are relatively good.

Culver himself has been given up for dead by many analysts and even by members of his own party, although, in these anti-incumbent elections, he is running against Terry Branstad, who was the state's governor for 18 years starting in 1982 before retiring. Democrats in Iowa are also in danger of relinquishing control of the state house, losing seats in the state senate and, potentially, dropping a couple of U.S. House seats as well.

Culver's lament is similar to the White House's evident complaint: voters of all stripes, including liberals, just don't appreciate what has been accomplished these past two years and refuse to see that electing Republicans would endanger important advancements on the economy, education and social issues. Culver says he plans to tell voters, in effect, "If we can get your attention, I think you'll like what you will see," but worries that the national political environment, and voters' fixation on debt and deficits in Washington, will make it hard to get his message out.

Culver's closing strategy, set to gear up as Halloween approaches, is to label Branstad as Scary Terry for his conservative views. That mirrors what Axelrod and Plouffe have promised to unleash nationally in the closing days before the midterms — galvanizing their troops with the threat of Scary Sarah, Scary Newt and Scary Glenn. Plouffe was practically giddy about Palin's planned trip to Iowa on Sept. 17 to speak at the GOP's big fall event, the annual Ronald Reagan dinner. It will be Palin's first political foray into the state since the 2008 campaign. "She's our best fundraiser and organizer," Plouffe said.

Harkin, perhaps because he isn't facing the voters this fall, was among the few Democratic optimists in Iowa this weekend. "There's still plenty of kick in the old donkey," he said. But a kick may be no match for those headwinds.