CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn is reporting from Iowa.
Politics is also a game of inches. Never has this been truer than in the final pull in this tighter than tight Iowa caucus.
Iowa is the first place where pancake flipping and stump speeches must spur voters to vote. It is the first place where reporters will block a candidate from getting back on the bus in order to ask one more question, just one more question Governor Dean, one follow-up Representative Gephardt. And Iowa is also one of the last places where the people are essential to the process. If you cannot get through to Iowans you cannot win Iowa. And in each candidate's own way, they are trying to do exactly this, one last time.
The endgame strategies are now all that's left.
It is a four man race in the Hawkeye state and all the candidates want organizations as strong and imbued as Howard Dean's. Each claims the optimism of the surging John Edwards. They want to look as presidential as the stoic (and also surging) John Kerry. They want the grassroots support of Dick Gephardt's Democrats.
But after more than a year of campaigning, there are two days left and each candidate's strategy might determine who walks back to Washington and who continues on. But they do only have two days. Two days until the 2004 campaign officially begins, until meatpackers and farmers and yuppies (yes, even Iowa has yuppies) cram small school gyms and churches, to pick their man. Candidates are now grasping for every voter.
After Iowa comes New Hampshire, and Vermont Gov. Dean will have a four-star general in Wes Clark to concern himself with. Missouri Rep. Gephardt must win Iowa to stay viable (to use the caucus-goer jargon). North Carolina Sen. Edwards doesn't even have to win. If he simply remains close to the first and second place finisher, he will beat the expectations game (which after all, is what these early primaries and caucus are all about). For the hot Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who just last Sunday on Meet the Press was being asked by Tim Russert, "what happened" because "maybe perhaps a year and a half ago, you were widely considered the front-runner, ahead of Howard Dean 2:1 in New Hampshire. You're now losing to him 3:1 in New Hampshire. What happened?" Kerry spoke of the record turnout at his events and it turns out he was right. If Kerry can win or even place a close second in Iowa on Monday night (which looks very possible) he will likely have enough momentum to come back to New Hampshire and fight one more day against the general and governor, who lead the polls there.
But if you ask the candidates, they're all going for a win. A politician never considers second place (publicly that is). But there now just may be four tickets out of Iowa.
Below is a breakdown of how the four presidential hopefuls will run the last lap of the Iowa horse race and how each of them hopes to win what looks to be a blanket finish.
Dean's your man, even if you thought you were for Gephardt
Recently at an event here in front of members of the United Auto Workers (as much Gephardt Democrats as you can get) Dean tried to convince them that he was the man that could beat President George W. Bush. These men, who most certainly are from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, are consummate caucus-goers and Dean wants to win their vote in his final days in Iowa.
"The strategy is to get our supporters to go out and caucus for us, to get the undecideds to caucus for us and to energize the areas that you might consider Kerry's or Gephardt's territory," spokesman Doug Thornell says.
Rather than reinvigorating his base, Dean has been fighting on foreign turf. A side note to his attempt to go after supporters of other campaigns is his particular effort to get through to supporters of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Counting on their similar antiwar stances, Dean hopes the supporters of Kucinich will go his way if the liberal congressman is unable to remain viable in different precincts. If a candidate does not get 15 percent of the vote in the caucus his supporters must either recruit those his way (unlikely with Kucinich) or they must join another campaign.
Yet on Sunday, the day before caucus night, he will fly off to Georgia and meet with Former President Jimmy Carter (the man who made the Iowa Caucus relevant when in 1976 his low-cost campaign placed a surprised second and used the momentum to win the presidency). Carter is still popular here and at the very least his appearance with Dean should help generate the coveted caucus day media buzz.
As for Monday, Dean will return to his base, spending his last 24 hours of his campaign visiting Iowa's biggest cities: Ceder Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines and Ames.
Kerry and his army of veterans
Today in Des Moines, Kerry embraced a man whose life he saved in Vietnam. It is the first time they were reunited since he rescued the Green Beret in March 1969. It was the stuff of presidents – or at least presidential-grade photo-ops.
Kerry has an army of fellow veterans in this state now stumping for him, based upon a network called Veterans for Veterans.
"We had a group of Boston area veterans yesterday who gathered together in subzero weather, climbed aboard a bus, drove for 25 hours to Des Moines, got off the buss, picked up cell phones and started calling people," Kerry campaign spokesman David DiMartino says. "We are seeing that kind of energy from veterans and I think people are overlooking that kind of support."
He may just be right but Kerry's strategy is larger than this. He is "trying to shake every hand in Iowa," Martino continued, speaking with the hyperbole only a political spokesman can. But Kerry is visiting about 10 cities a day, according to his campaign. "It all comes down to putting Kerry in front of as many Iowans so they can get a feel for him," Martino explains.
It certainly has worked in this last week of campaigning (Kerry has risen in the polls about 8 points since Sunday). Kerry is doing town hall meeting after town hall meeting. He speaks for a short period of time and then takes as many questions as can be asked. He is telling the undecideds in the room to ask him questions.
But his campaign is also working the local media. "Everyday is about Iowan media," Martino says, emphasizing that this will be especially true for this campaign in the last two days. "We have time set aside with him to talk to local affiliates. We are really working the local papers to cover John Kerry's events."
Edwards snowball effect in a rainy Iowa
"Everyday we have bigger crowds at our events," says Edward's Press Secretary Jennifer Palmieri. "And we are going to keep doing what we have been doing over the last two weeks."
Averaging eight rallies a day, in these final days, Edwards just wants to stay on the trail. Still gaining nearly a week after the surprise Des Moines Register endorsement that pushed him forward in the polls, Edwards is on his game, finally, his campaign workers say, words often followed by a sigh of relief.
The exhilarated Edwards is direct. "If I could grab each and every one of you, I would," he is fond of saying. He tells Iowans that he "needs each and every one of you to caucus."
"His strategy is to continue what he is doing," says another campaign spokesman, Roger Salazar, "To get out there. He believes he is the right candidate for this time.
The campaign is banking on their belief that "Senator Edwards is the kind of candidate that the more you see of him is the more you like him." And Salazar says, "Our strategy is to get as many Iowans to see him, to listen to him personally, as possible."
The Edwards endgame is really that simple. Talk to as many Iowans as possible in the last two days, urge them to caucus (maybe push a bit), and hope for the best.
Gephardt's old Democrats
Dick Gephardt's poll numbers have remained steady and with a high turnout expected, what looks to be a lack of momentum may present a real problem when going after those who still have not decided on a candidate, or those who support one who is not viable. But Gephardt is confident, claiming he has the "hard count" to win caucus night.
Friday night when the television cameras were off, Gephardt explained why he thinks he can pull off a second victory in Iowa (he won the caucus in 1988).
"Nearly 100,000 people will show up in the whole state," he told reporters. "So if we just get a fifth of the union works to show up, putting aside their families, we win, it's that simple."
The Washington veteran cites 95,000 union members, both current and retired, as the key to his victory. He sees Iowa as a microcosm of the kind of victory the Democrats will need to win in order to take by the White House.
"Gephardt can not only appeal to traditional Democrats but he can appeal to Republicans and Independents to and we hope to that Monday night," National Spokesman Erik Smith said. "The traditional Democratic coalition I'm talking about are seniors. I'm talking farmers. I'm talking middle class families and labor. Those are the people backing his candidacy and that is what will power a win."
Gephardt certainly hopes so. He needs a victory Monday night more than anyone.