DAVENPORT, Iowa - His campaign finally surging after months in the political shoals, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry stopped at St. Ambrose University, a small college nestled in an older Davenport neighborhood, to once again restate his campaign goals and to reflect.
Just minutes from the western bank of the Mississippi River, this midwestern university is a place unfamiliar to Washington powerbrokers, except now, just days before the Iowa caucuses.
“I want to thank Iowa for an extraordinary welcome, an extraordinary lesson in the virtue of our own democracy,” he told 125 people - students, activists, curious residents - crammed into a corner of the student union building. An additional 75 people peered down at the Massachusetts senator from their crowded perch in a balcony.
“I have learned a lot here, listening to people play out democracy in VFW halls and living rooms, in barns, on farms, standing in front of gracious fields of corn on a beautiful summer day and trudging through the snow and watching snowmobilers careening along beside us on the side of the roads,” he said.
He called the caucuses an “incredibly grass-roots, face-to-face, person-to-person democratic process.”
Tomorrow s Iowa caucuses are unique in American politics. In each of nearly 2,000 precincts statewide, Democrats will gather with their neighbors to declare their presidential preferences. Some will hold discussions before making their final choices, while other caucuses will simply convene, count raised hands, and report the results.
The caucuses require an extra measure of dedication on the part of voters because they must show up to take part. There are no absentee ballots, no provisional voting, and no secret ballot.
Other states hold caucus elections, but they are different than Iowa. In Michigan, Democrats will cast ballots early next month in an election much like any other, with polling places and voting machines. In every way, the Michigan Democratic presidential caucuses are identical to a typical primary election, except that the election is run by the political party, not the state.
Public opinion polls mean less and get-out-the-vote efforts mean more here. For that reason, the caucuses test the organizational skills of the presidential campaigns.
Linda Hutchcroft, a college professor from Mediapolis in southeastern Iowa, said the reason the caucuses work here is because “we in Iowa are the heartland. We have spunk. We have determination. What you see is what you get in Iowa. We are who we are. We don t make pretenses.”
“We really do think for ourselves,” she said, adding that, by their nature, Iowans can sift the wheat from the chaff in the presidential field.
Mike Hampton, a softball coach and former county Democratic Party chairman from Mount Pleasant, said candidates are forced to be honest with Iowans because of their ability to judge character.
“It s an opportunity for the unknown candidate to rub shoulders with the farmer, the educator, and others. Out here, we re pretty true Americans.”
Mark Daley, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said this year s race has captured more than the normal amount of attention.
“There is a lot more interest because there are four candidates within the margin of error in the polls. It s more exciting. We ve got a real race,” he said.
“Iowans really enjoy our role as the first in the nation, but there are arguments from other states, that maybe they should go first,” Mr. Daley said. “One argument is that we are not as diverse a population as other states, that we are not a microcosm of the nation as a whole, but there really is no state that is a microcosm. Iowa is as good a place as any to be the first - especially since the process here is so hands-on.”
The caucuses, first employed by Democrats in 1972, have had a history of catapulting those who have finished third or better to their party s nomination or the presidency.
The caucus rose to prominence after Democrats, upset about the divisions in the party during the Vietnam War, formed a commission designed to find ways to broaden participation in party affairs. That commission was chaired by Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes.
George McGovern, powered in part by the tactics of his campaign manager, Gary Hart, used the caucuses as a springboard to the nomination in 1972. It grew in prominence in 1976, when the campaign of Jimmy Carter, then an unknown governor of Georgia, poured extensive energy into campaigning here. It paid off, as he won the state and widespread recognition, providing the springboard that boosted him to the presidency.
Iowa s caucuses were scheduled early in the year mainly as a timing issue to accommodate the party s June convention. It struck an agreement with New Hampshire, declaring that Iowa would hold the first caucus and New Hampshire would host the first primary election. Dates of the primary and caucus have moved, but both states, backed up by the national parties, have held on to their first-in-the-nation status.
If it weren t for its first-in-the-nation status, Iowa would be politically insignificant. Just 1 percent of America s population live here. Its delegates to the Democratic National Convention this year will be less than 3 percent of the number needed to win the presidential nomination. And because Democrats award their delegates to the convention on a proportionate basis based on the share of votes a candidate captures in a state s caucus or primary, the winner in Iowa is likely to come away with half - or fewer - of the state s 45 pledged delegates.
Iowa is 93 percent white, 2 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic. It has a population of 3 million, up 5.4 percent from the 1990 census, a reversal from the 4.7 percent decline it experienced in the 1980s, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
The ancestry of nearly half of the state s population comes from four countries: Germany, Ireland, England, and Norway. Sixty-one percent of Iowans live in cities while 39 percent live in rural settings. Eighty-six percent have high school diplomas while 21 percent have college degrees. Twenty-seven percent work blue-collar jobs while 57 percent work in white-collar positions. Sixteen percent are in gray-collar occupations: jobs described by the U.S. Census Bureau as those that are neither blue collar nor white collar. Those jobs include farming, fishing, forestry, and health care.
The median price of a home in Iowa is $82,000. Iowa s elderly population is the third-highest in the nation and is projected to increase by 20 percent by 2010. Presidential candidates here devote chunks of nearly every speech to health care or pension issues.
Politically, 29 percent of Iowans consider themselves Democrats, while 32 percent say they are Republicans. Thirty-nine percent are independents. Republicans control both houses of the Iowa legislature, but Gov. Thomas Vilsack is a second-term Democrat - the first Democrat to be re-elected governor since 1966, and the first Democratic governor since 1968.
Iowa has supported Democrats in recent presidential elections. Democrat Bill Clinton won the state twice, and Al Gore won it - by a narrow margin - in 2000.
Speaking to the crowd at St. Ambrose last week, Mr. Kerry put the caucuses into perspective, saying that tomorrow, Iowans “will be the most privileged people on the planet. People die in some countries to have the right to do what you will do.”
“This is a great privilege,” he said. “And it is even more so a privilege and a burden because the eyes of the world will be upon you, because you are not just choosing a president of the United States, you are choosing a leader of the free world.”