Saturday, November 10, 2007

Jumping through hoops for the caucus circus

Take it from an Iowa girl, or at least one who lived there long enough to know better: The presidential race ain't over.

You can forget about the coronation of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

The battle really has just begun.

This is distressing news to sane folks who believe two years is about 21 months too long to be bombarded by the smug mugs of all 698 aspiring leaders of the free world.

Of course, the two frontrunners have been barnstorming for far longer — Giuliani since Sept. 12, 2001, and Clinton since 1974 or so.

Polls show Clinton is losing ground, perhaps because of her campaign's clumsy claim that her opponents are "piling on" because she has ovaries. Some punches thrown by Barack Obama and John Edwards have landed.

Clinton's negatives always have been her Achilles heel. Powerful Democrats may worship her — but too many Republican and the all-important independent voters saw enough of her in the 1990s and won't back her at any cost.

Why do you think the GOP spends so much time cheerleading Hillary as the "inevitable nominee"?

The race is even more muddled on the Republican side, with the Religious Right juggernaut now hopelessly off-kilter.

When Pat Robertson comes out for the thrice-married guy who supports abortion and gay rights, you know there's a full-blown GOP identity crisis.

Giuliani might have the reverend and a lead in the national polls, but Mitt Romney's got the money ($17.5 million of his own and counting) and has stubbornly courted the early voting states. And there's stiff competition from John McCain, Fred Thompson and even Mike (who?) Huckabee.

It's still anyone's game.

Four years ago at this time, Howard Dean seemed to have the Democratic nomination sewn up. If you want to see how his dream fell apart, look no further than the bizarre "I have a scream" speech he belted out after a surprise upset in the Iowa Caucus.

Iowa and New Hampshire remain the epicenters of the electoral process, despite power grabs by bigger states like Michigan and Florida.

Although New Englanders won't take kindly to this, I'll fill you in on a secret: Iowa is more important. It's first, it's a caucus (stay with me) and it's kookier.

Politicians who have shunned Iowa's corn-fed goodness for the Granite State have rued the day, like Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark. It's hard to regain momentum out east after eight days of nonstop news coverage that you're irrelevant.

John McCain is a notable exception back in 2000, but he's not pressing his luck this time around, busily pressing the flesh of voters from Boone to Bettendorf.
All politics is local in the Hawkeye State and it isn't glamorous.

I've talked to Bill Clinton after he slurped down a milkshake and Dennis Kucinich after he grabbed a veggie burger to go at one of my favorite Iowa City haunts, the Hamburg Inn No. 2. It's a must-stop on the stump where waitresses still invoke the lore of Ronald Reagan (a good tipper) and curse Pat Buchanan (who evidently was not.)

But the Burg isn't unusual, even if its soggy tan booths and wilted laminated menus worked their way into a "West Wing" plot. Any dowdy Maid-Rite diner or chili cook-off in a church basement will draw contenders as quick as $1,000-a-plate dinners. Which is actually the most refreshing part of the circus.

Regular folks do rate.

They have to. Caucusing is a commitment.

The date always changes, but it inevitably falls on the coldest night of the year. That's enshrined in the Iowa constitution. A foot of snow is always a nice touch.

Caucus-goers don't just punch a ballot behind the curtain and go home. It's mayhem at many of the 1,784 precincts starting at 7 p.m. If you're a Republican, you take part in a straw poll, declaring to all your undying love for Tom Tancredo.

Democrats are less organized (surprise!). Typically, you line up in a school gym for your chosen candidate, in front of God and everyone.

Your friends and neighbors can (and will) cajole you into coming over to their side, especially if you stand with a non-viable candidate (who has less than 15 percent support.) If you don't, prepare to be catcalled and find their pizza boxes strewn across your yard in the morning.

And so come Jan. 3, politicians will defile their Prada shoes, trekking across frozen tundra while chugging a coffee and Dayquil cocktail until the caucuses begin.

In a process this peculiar, you never know what's going to happen.

For political junkies, it's still the greatest show on earth.

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