Don't Write Off 'Quaint' States

Democratic presidential hopeful former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, right, talks with Mary Rolston, of Adel, Iowa, during a visit to the Dunlap Livestock Auction, Tuesday July 29, 2003, in Dunlap, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

In the Des Moines Register vs. New York Times dispute over the relevance of the Iowa caucuses, put this New Yorker squarely in the Register column. In an editorial that was pompous even by New York Times standards, the paper heralded the decisions by Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman to bypass Iowa and its "quaint views." One wonders if they'd prefer to kick off the primaries in New York, where the only way John McCain could get on the ballot in 2000 was to go to court.

Starting everywhere is a lovely concept in theory but what if the regional approach preferred by the Times started in the southwest. Would those in the salons of Manhattan get seriously engaged if the first tests were in Tulsa and Las Cruces? This year they occur in week three of the primary calendar and the candidates have been buzzing around Oklahoma and New Mexico for the past few months, too.

So far in this cycle there have been dozens of candidate forums and four nationally televised debates in cities ranging from Phoenix to Detroit to groups of teachers, union members, blacks, Latinos, seniors, young people and even one on Wall Street. So what's stopping people across the nation or on the New York Times ed board from getting seriously engaged in the discussion right now? Why do they have to wait until next April?

I just came back from Iowa where the candidates and their staffs have been organizing away for over a year and where the issues on the minds of voters are health care, the economy, Iraq and education – not so very different from voters nationwide. Since 20 percent of Iowans are farmers, the ag economy is also part of the equation and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, for one, spent Monday and Tuesday taking to rural voters about deficits and Social Security.

Edwards said in his announcement speech last month that "Democrats too often act like rural America is just someplace to fly over between a fund-raiser in Manhattan and a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills." The Times staffers might be interested to know that their fascination with low-carb diets has driven the price of beef cattle sky high. Now that might be something to get seriously engaged in!

David Yepsen, the political columnist from the Des Moines Register and a cheerleader for the caucuses, wrote this week that far from being a vehicle for moneyed people or the media, the caucuses give "everyday Americans a voice in the process." Washington Post columnist David Broder heralded the caucuses' role in "winnowing the field," giving voters in later states, who presumably will spend less time assessing the candidates, clearer choices.

True, these early small states aren't as diverse as California, Texas, Illinois or New York, and they have a disproportionate clout for their size. But, looking at them politically, Iowa and New Hampshire are true battleground states, more closely mirroring the national vote in the last three presidential elections than those big states, and promising to be key again in 2004.

The real difference right now between Mason City and Manhattan is how engaged folks are in the presidential campaign. In downtown Des Moines, young staffers are eagerly preparing for a month of political activity including a big Democratic debate on Nov. 24 and the upcoming Democratic and Republican dinners, which will keynoted by, of all things, two New Yorkers: Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican Gov. George Pataki.

Yepsen wrote that if Wes Clark or Joe Lieberman are able to win the Democratic nomination without running in Iowa, the caucuses are toast. But at lunch this week he said, with a gleam in his eye, that the New Yorkers coming to these dinners might signal hope for the future.

"That's not about 2004," he said of Pataki and Clinton. "It's about 2008."