Beginning Of Presidential Road

The road to the White House begins in rural Iowa, running through towns like Rippey and Jefferson in Greene County, and, sometimes, in the most unusual places.

"We are getting ready for the Gephardt campaign to come to tell Greene County why he's the person to vote for," says Joyce Ausberger. "Believe me, this shop has not been cleaned for ... really clean, what? Three years?"

Bob and Joyce Ausberger and their friend, Bob Owens, were getting ready for a campaign visit by Dick Gephardt to their repair shop.

"At first, I was noncommittal about it," says Bob Ausberger. "And then, as I got into it, I got pretty excited."

The Ausbergers farm 1,600-acres of corn and soy beans. But recently, they had politics on their minds.

"Being from the Midwest and Gephardt being from Missouri, I guess we relate more to him," says Joyce Ausberger.

"I'm really afraid of some of the things that Bush is doing," adds Bob. "I'm for a person like Gephardt. And I think he has the best chance of beating President Bush."

The Ausbergers first took notice of Dick Gephardt because their neighbor, Bob Owens, asked them to. That's how it works in Iowa.

"I said, 'I surely would like to have you go over to Ogden and listen to Dick Gephardt and visit him in person,'" says Owens.

The Ausbergers did just that at 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

They liked what they heard. Less than two weeks later, Bob and Joyce Ausberger and about 60 of their neighbors where in the couple's repair shop, shaking hands with Dick Gephardt. They covered the grease pit, so Gephardt wouldn't fall in.

Who can beat George Bush? It's the mantra hovering over Iowa Democrats like the dull winter sun. It transcends all other issues and has produced one of the most intense campaigns ever seen in central Iowa.

"[Howard] Dean was here in June. About 60 people. Then [John] Edwards had a picnic this summer, then Gephardt, then the day before New Year's Eve, [John] Kerry was here. He had about 100 people," says Rick Morain, publisher and editor of the Bee and Herald newspapers in Jefferson, Iowa.

On most caucus years, a few candidates trickle in. This year, it's a tidal wave. Morain says Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq grabbed people's attention, especially as U.S. casualties began to rise.

He explains, "He maybe was one of the first ones out of the box. He was willing to beard the president during a time of patriotism and waving the flag. And I think the Democrats appreciated that. That's one more bit of evidence, I think, of their determination to defeat Bush. There's a lot of visceral ... just dislike of President George W. Bush."

Take for example, Rachel Sacco of Rippey, Iowa.

"When somebody thinks they own God and that God is speaking directly and telling them that whatever they decide to say, it's just like God said it? That's very scary," says Sacco.

Rachel Sacco heads the Greene County Democratic Party. She has spent months checking out the Democratic candidates. And, she went to the Asusbergers' Gephardt affair. She let Sen. John Edwards hold a picnic at her place. She met Howard Dean. And when Sen. John Kerry campaigned in the area the day before New Year's Eve, he tried a little friendly persuasion on Sacco.

"Kerry walked in and said to me, 'Why aren't you on board?' I'm obviously paraphrasing. And he said, 'We need you, what's your problem?' And I said, 'Well, you know, the main one that I can think of to talk to you about is the war.'"

The anger here toward the president has spread to some of the Democrats in congress, especially those who voted for the war, such as Edwards and Kerry. It's a feeling they rolled over for the president on a host of issues. Rachel Sacco settled on Howard Dean.

"I mean, he is somebody who wants to make social change," says Sacco. "He really wants to make a big difference. And I want a big difference."

As the caucuses approach, and the criticism of the front-running Dean intensifies, Rick Morain says the number of people who could change their minds remains high.

"The number of undecideds in Iowa politics among the Democrats is just phenomenal to me," says Morain.

It may be as high as 40 percent of those who intend to go to the caucuses.

"I think there are a lot of people that still are not quite sure how they're going to vote," says Morain. "We want to win so badly."

It is a feeling shared by Democrats more than 1,000 miles away in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 27. While Howard Dean has a sizeable lead there, there's a growing feeling that Gen. Wesley Clark may be making a move in the Granite State.

Clark skipped Iowa, he says, because he got into the race late. For much of the last two weeks, he had New Hampshire to himself.

According to Clark, voters are concerned about Iraq, but they also have their minds on jobs, healthcare and education.

And some may be just as concerned about removing the current occupant of the White House.

"It's just the fact they're looking for someone who will stand up and represent the things of value that are important to them," says Clark. "They're looking for someone who won't be buffaloed."

Politics is a passion in New Hampshire. The temperature was well below zero outside a Clark town hall meeting in the town of Hudson, yet people showed up to hear what the presidential hopeful had to say.

While campaigning grows more intense in Iowa and New Hampshire, it's easy to forget that most Americans are paying more attention to the NFL playoffs than presidential politics. Every four years, the question is asked: "Why should the rest of the nation care what happens in these relatively small states?"

"Iowa and New Hampshire have been given a disproportionate power in this process, and they get it every year," says Norman Orenstein, who studies American politics at the American Enterprise Institute and is a CBS News consultant.

"There's genuine, legitimate criticism. Among other things, you have almost no minority populations in those states … so they're shut out of the early stages of the process. At the same time, the economic and political concerns may be very different than the rest of the country."

Yet Iowa and New Hampshire retain their coveted spot in the political calendar, the time around the primary season that has literally shrunk.

Caucuses and primaries were designed to take away the power of party bosses to pick presidential nominees. The primary season used to last from January to June. This year, they've been front-loaded, with a majority of delegates being chosen by the end of March. Norman Orenstein says it could even be over by mid-February.

"Certainly if you can wrap up a nomination early with as little blood letting and as little violence in the process as possible, and spend as little money as you can, there's an enormous advantage," says Orenstein. "The longer you have an extended and bitter debate within the party, the more difficulties you have.

"One of the real difficulties of compressing the process is you don't necessarily have your best candidate emerge. We're going to start this process with most people unaware that it's about to start, and before they can blink an eye, much less focus on who their choices are, it'll be over."

But the process has to start somewhere. And most people who have been to Iowa and New Hampshire know the people there take their responsibilities very seriously, even while they remain a little amazed to see potential presidents traipsing through their towns.

"We are used to evaluating the candidates and to discussing them," says Iowa newspaper publisher Rick Morain.

He also says contenders starting out in small states with no major urban centers, forces anyone who wishes to be president to do it the hard way -- face to face. In an age where most voters never see a candidate in the flesh, that may be a good thing.

"You can't just go into the big metro city, win the majority of the votes there and wheels up to the next state," says Morain. "You got to go out and win it. It's a good thing to get out and have to face people day after day, maybe in six different towns in a day, and realize that this is who you're going to represent.

"I think whoever is elected president, is going to carry that on to the job. And after inauguration, he'll remember that kind of experience he had out in the cold, small towns, the byways of Iowa."