Since 1972, the first major event in a presidential campaign year has been the caucus held in the Midwestern state of Iowa. Democratic candidates are already at work in the cities and rural areas of the state, talking to people who may participate in one of the nearly 2,000 caucus meetings to be held there on January 19.
In his campaign ads, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt takes aim at economic issues, and criticizes President George W. Bush for creating a deficit from a surplus and giving a tax break to the wealthy. There is not much heard from President Bush or the Republicans yet, because they already have their candidate. This time around, the Iowa caucus is strictly a Democratic battle.
All the candidates are attacking President Bush on the economy, because, Iowa Democratic Party Spokesman Mark Daley says, that is the issue of most importance for Iowans.
"This year, the major issue is definitely the economy," stressed Mr. Daley. "There is no way around it. Iowa has lost 31,000 jobs since George Bush took office. Like every other state, we have gone from surplus to deficit, and much of that has to do with Bush's handling of the economy. So, that is going to be the major issue that comes through at our caucuses in January."
The Republicans have not been silent, however. In a recent appearance in Des Moines, Vice President Dick Cheney said security and the war on terrorism will be the major issues in the campaign next year. Republicans see this as a weak spot for the Democrats, who, according to polls, are viewed as less capable of handling national security problems.
Drake University Political Science Professor Dennis Goldford says this is why some Democrats celebrated the recent entry of retired Army General Wesley Clark into the race.
"They look at Clark, those who look at him favorably, think that he might be a way of neutralizing the perceived Democratic weakness on national security and foreign policy," said Prof. Goldford. "In the Democrats' view, if that charge against them is neutralized, then they can go on to discuss what they really want to discuss, which is all these domestic issues."
Professor Goldford says that Mr. Clark's problem is that voters in Iowa do not know him yet, and since the war is not, at the moment, their top concern, they may be more inclined to pick Congressman Gephardt, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean or Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, all of whom have been at the top in recent polls.
But with the caucuses more than three months away, much could change. Professor Goldford says candidates have to be careful not to peak too soon in Iowa, because they will be judged accordingly, when the results come in on January 19.
"Every candidate in the caucuses has exactly the same opponent, and that opponent's name is 'expected.' Did you do better than expected or did you do worse than expected? Where do these expectations come from? Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, they come from the press, they come from academic observers and from various professional observers of the nomination process," said Mr. Goldford.
Professor Goldford says the man in the most awkward position this year may be Congressman Gephardt, who comes from the neighboring state of Missouri. He has a strong organization in Iowa, with endorsements from more than a dozen labor unions. He is also remembered for having won the Iowa caucus in 1988. But all this could be a burden for him, according to Professor Goldford.
"The difficulty for Gephardt is that a victory will be discounted. In other words, [they will say] 'Well, of course you won because of all these factors; you won before; you have a base of support, and you are a neighboring Midwesterner.'
"A loss, on the other hand, will be magnified," said the Drake University professor. He prediced that critics will say, "'My Gosh, if you could not win here, where you had these three things going for you, that shows a real weakness in your campaign.' Campaign contributors and political activists pay attention to that, and because New Hampshire is only eight days away, that can have a big impact that short a distance down the road."
Professor Goldford says all the Democratic candidates in Iowa will have to be careful in their quest for votes from caucus participants, who tend to be more liberal than average voters. He says a candidate can win Iowa's caucus and the New Hampshire primary that follows it with left-of-center rhetoric, but that could come back to haunt him or her in the general election, where more moderate voters usually decide the outcome.