By ROB HOTAKAINEN
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
February 10, 2006
Non-candidates are turning up everywhere in the state.
Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, ate chili with 150 Iowans in a school cafeteria in Sioux Center recently, making his sixth visit in recent months. Four days later, Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, came to raise cash in Council Bluffs, his fourth visit. John Edwards, the former North Carolina Democratic senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate, will make his fifth visit next month, going to Davenport to give a speech on poverty.
The early flood of political suitors amazes JoAnn Huygens, 69, a retired teacher from Hospers.
"It blows my mind," she said.
Ever since a little-known guy named Jimmy Carter won the first-in-the-nation caucuses in 1976, the Hawkeye State has become the Holy Grail of presidential politics.
And although there are grumblings in both parties about Iowa's outsized status as a presidential kingmaker, that isn't stopping politicians from pouring in, knowing it's never too early to nail down a few votes.
The state's fabled caucuses won't be held until January 2008. But the time-honored ritual featuring politicians who all insist they're not running yet even as they go to great lengths to woo Iowans at stops on farms and in coffee shops is well underway.
"No one wants to look too ambitious," said David Redlawsk, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "There's a real fear that you'll be tagged as jumping the gun."
On the Republican side, recent visitors have included Huckabee, Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and New York Gov. George Pataki.
Among Democrats, recent visitors have included Edwards, 2004 presidential nominee Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the top choice of Democrats in many polls, has avoided Iowa, but she had a group of Iowans meet with her at her Washington home - last year.
They all have this much in common: They are saying very nice things about Iowa.
In the dead of winter, Huckabee told Iowans how much he liked the snow, ice and wind. "I was duck hunting in Arkansas this morning ... We could have used this weather," he said.
On a visit last fall, Frist went for a run along the Des Moines River and gave a speech in which he empathized with the locals.
"I know that a lot of folks here in Iowa ... are a little down right now," he told them, adding that he believes in "the can-do spirit" that Iowa embodies. He also noted that his father did an internship "right here in Iowa."
Iowans take great pride in screening candidates and say those who bypass the state do so at their peril - such as John McCain, Arizona's Republican senator. He opposes ethanol subsidies and skipped the state in 2000 when he sought his party's presidential nomination.
"It showed what happened to him: He didn't win," said Jason Moser, 34, a telecommunications technician from Hull.
Mark Lundberg, chairman of the Sioux County Republicans, said the Iowa system allows people to explore presidential bids without having to spend $50 million.
And Ralph Glemaat, 47, an electronic technician from Sioux Center, said the Iowa system is good because it allows voters to "really kick the tires on the candidacy, really test the mettle" of candidates.
But some say the deluge of early political visits will stop on the Democratic side if Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack decides to join the presidential race.
"If he is running, you'll see the Democrats just get out of town and go hang out in New Hampshire," said Christian Grose, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, tried to click with voters in the state's most Republican county by preaching the politics of personal responsibility, using his battle with obesity to argue that Americans can take better care of themselves and cut the costs of health care. Huckabee lost more than 100 pounds in the past three years and is preparing for his third marathon.
If the early visits are a sign of political muscle, then Huckabee is a powerhouse. But he said the only thing he is running for now is his health.
"It's way too early for people to be deciding on something that's not going to be happening for three years," he said.
Dean Endrulat, 39, a factory worker from Ireton, said he had no idea that Huckabee was even thinking about running for president until they sat down together to eat chili.
Then, smiling broadly, Endrulat boasted that Iowa is "the real heartbeat of the United States."
"I've lived here in Iowa all my life, so it's an honor to be able to be at this threshold of the elections," he said.
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