POLITICS The Starting Gun

The Iowa caucus: they’re off and running

You can take a ten-minute taxi ride from the Des Moines airport and be in farm country. For visiting television crews this is a godsend, because it allows easy access to hogs, cornfields, and other rural items that “look like Iowa” and are so essential for background shots. This winter, the farmers in the area have become used to seeing political reporters wallowing with their hogs.

Why would anyone want to go to Iowa in the middle of winter? With Machiavellian shrewdness, Iowa has one-upped New Hampshire by staging the nation’s first selection of delegates in the presidential nominating process. The New Hampshire primary used to be in March; now it is in February. But Iowa jumps the gun in mid-January.

So Iowans are treated to a political Mardi Gras, with network anchormen tripping over one another and candidates and their entourages crisscrossing the state seeking votes and spending money. This is politics as spectacle.

I spent a few days in Iowa traveling with the George Bush campaign and came away less depressed than I had expected. Iowans certainly were entertained by the candidates’ competition, but when it came time to go to the precinct caucuses and make serious choices, Iowa voters proved that they had not relinquished control of their state’s politics to the visitors.

The caucuses that were expected to attract 65,000 participants instead drew approximately 200,000. I watched a long line of people stand in the cold waiting to enter an already jammed church hall in Des Moines. The enthusiasm of this crowd, and of those awaiting a candidate in places like Marshalltown and Iowa City, was undeniably genuine.

The lowans delighted in the attention they were receiving. They were unfailingly friendly and basked in the praise of reporters who are accustomed to the icy civility of Washington. Cronkite was there, more pursued by autograph seekers than were the candidates. When it became known that I was working for a Dallas television station, 1 twice was asked, “Do you know J.R. Ewing?” I replied nonchalantly, “We do some oil bidness together.”

Although the Bush versus Reagan battle held the center of the Republican stage, other candidates’ efforts occasionally were visible. A Howard Baker television spot (if not Howard Baker himself) received considerable acclaim for its portrayal of Baker doing verbal battle with an Iranian student.

John Connally, on the other hand, managed to hinder his campaign with his television advertising. A spot implying that Iowa Governor Robert Ray had endorsed Connally had to be withdrawn after the neutral Ray denied giving any such support. Iowans are predisposed to distrust wheeler-dealer types and this controversy hurt Big Jawn. For the most part, the Connally campaign was invisible until election night when a coterie of three-piece-suited Connally supporters materialized in the hotel ballroom where election returns were posted. As the first results came in, the Con-nallyites’ smirks became frowns and the boosters soon disappeared.

Only one candidate lingered with the press and public: Harold Stassen. With his grandson comprising his entire campaign staff and wearing the only Stassen button to be seen, Stassen was a smiling but sad figure. When it was clear that he would garner all of several dozen votes statewide, Stassen proved more steadfast than the Connally backers. He worked the crowd like a front-runner.

The suite where the Robert Dole victory party was to be held was something less than a hotbed of activity. A hotel bartender lounged on a sofa, watching television by himself.

The only evidence of Philip Crane’s campaign was his Secret Service entourage. Crane must have spent most of his time in his hotel room because the guards seemed always to be there. In fact, Crane seemed to have more Secret Service agents than votes. The taxpayers, of course, pick up the tab for these security arrangements. If Crane is as fiscally conservative as he professes, he should save us all some money by jettisoning his bodyguards or his campaign or both.

George Bush, meanwhile, was enjoying himself. With victory in sight, he emerged from his suite to be cheered by his workers. He took one of his increasingly frequent potshots at the press by anticipating denigration of his campaign style and loudly asking, “What the hell is wrong with good organization?”

Ronald Reagan stayed out of Iowa on election night, but around midnight his campaign manager John Sears appeared, looking even more waxen than his candidate. In spite of protesting references to his “grand strategy,” Sears recognized that he had made the front-runner’s classic error: Relax too much and your aura of invincibility quickly disappears. Bush undoubtedly ran a good campaign, but not so good that it could have withstood an aggressive Reagan effort.

The preeminent political question that emerges from Iowa: Is Reagan’s campaign really as flaccid as it appeared here and thus doomed to a long downhill slide, or will the Iowa defeat be the elixir needed to rouse Reagan from his lethargy?

While for Iowans this campaign was the high point of the political year, for candidates and their staffs it was but the first lap of the 1980 marathon. A Bush staff member noted that he was still learning about catering to the candidate’s culinary tastes: “My God, nobody told me how much popcorn that man eats!” Another plaint about the rigors of the campaign trail was “Try buying a decent white wine in Nashua, New Hampshire.”

Overall, the technical aspects of the campaign were being handled well, considering how early in the year it still is. Advance men – most of whom seemed barely to have passed puberty – adroitly moved airplanes and buses about the state. Antipathy towards the press (an inescapable element of today’s campaigns) has not yet reached the virulence that undoubtedly will exist within a few months.

For the press, too, this was a warm-up exercise. Journalists often spend as much money and worry on logistics as the candidates. Iowa marked the beginning of the prolonged election year search for the ultimate metaphor. As Bush pulled ahead on election night, newspeople trying to write their leads were mumbling to themselves. “How else can I say the tortoise and the hare; how about David and Goliath?”

Onward through the fog.


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