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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2003 / 18 Shevat, 5763

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If Iowa is America | It is truly said that right outside Washington there is a place called America, and for the 25 or so national political writers who ventured to Iowa last weekend, they got a dose of heightened reality.

They came to Marion, Iowa -- which sounds like it should be a bucolic hamlet, but instead is a charmless suburb of Cedar Rapids -- to hear three Democratic presidential candidates speak to a crowd of about 300.

The speeches by Howard Dean, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt drew their loudest applause and longest standing ovations when they attacked President Bush's policy on war with Iraq.

(Which led me to wonder why these guys didn't stay in Washington and address the 25,000 or so antiwar demonstrators who showed up there. When I asked Kerry, who organized mass protests against the Vietnam War when he returned from military service there, he said that he hadn't been invited, probably because he voted for the Senate resolution to support President Bush in dealing with Saddam Hussein.)

But for me, the real news that I got from talking to voters in Iowa was threefold: how little enthusiasm there seems to be for Dick Gephardt, how Kerry is doing better than expected and why Joe Lieberman might want to skip the state entirely.

First, Gephardt: The current media story line is that three candidates have "must-win" obligations in the first three states on the 2004 primary election calendar. Call it the Good Neighbors policy. Gephardt, who comes from neighboring Missouri, must win Iowa. Kerry, who comes from neighboring Massachusetts, must win New Hampshire, and John Edwards, who comes from neighboring North Carolina, must win South Carolina.

What happens if they don't? Well, if they have money, nothing. They can keep running and trying to win elsewhere. But the media will declare them "in trouble," and candidates in trouble always have difficulty raising funds.

Dick Gephardt, who won Iowa in 1988, should be a prohibitive favorite there, but it is hard to find much enthusiasm for his candidacy. People like him, people respect him, but I found very few people saying they were going to vote for him.

In typical Iowa fashion, I interviewed a woman at a Democratic Party reception in Des Moines, and when I got home, I already had an e-mail from her following up on our conversation.

Her name is Pat Brown, and when she backs a candidate, she gathers money and votes for him. (The day after her husband died last year, she went ahead with a previously scheduled political fund-raiser.)

"Gephardt was mashed potatoes in this last election," she said in her e-mail. "I was furious. Now maybe there is some political strategy that I missed, but he sure as hell was no ball of fire and certainly didn't provide inspired leadership and campaigning to elect Democrats."

Brown is backing Kerry, who wowed both locals and the national press when he gave a speech on Saturday morning in Des Moines with the temperature at 26 degrees and snow falling, and drew about 600 people.

That is a lot of people for Iowa and a whole lot of people one year before the Iowa caucuses.

It is often said in politics that it is better to have a wrong strategy than to have no strategy at all (the Bob Dole 1996 presidential campaign is a good example of a no-strategy campaign), and Kerry has adopted the strategy of a national front-runner: He intends to win every contest he enters. He intends to beat Dick Gephardt in Iowa, go on to New Hampshire eight days later and win there, and then use his victories and status as the only combat veteran in the race to beat John Edwards in South Carolina, which has a lot of veterans.

But where does this leave Joe Lieberman, the Democrat currently leading in the national polls?

"Lieberman says he will compete in Iowa, but that's insane," says David Axelrod, a political consultant who knows Iowa well. "He would do better to plant himself in New Hampshire. I wouldn't compete in Iowa."

Pat Brown's nephew is working for Lieberman and she likes Lieberman, but she doesn't think he has the horses to pull him across the finish line. "I don't think he has the charisma to carry the country," she says.

Howard Dean does have charisma, but it is the kind that appeals to college-educated, relatively well-to-do voters. He wowed the crowd in Marion on Saturday, but how well he can do on the farms and in the factories remains to be seen.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate