Raucous Caucus

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueling in santa Outfits.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueling in Santa outfits. Illustration: Robert Grossman

Iowa has eight deer hunting seasons: Shotgun, muzzleloader, early muzzleloader, bow, youth, disabled and special November and January antlerless seasons. I learned this from Mark, the taxi driver who picked me up from the Des Moines airport and drove me to see John Edwards, who was campaigning in Indianola on Thursday afternoon. Mark had just finished pointing out a few deer grazing on the icy fields along the road, when I learned something else about Iowa: Kamikaze wild turkeys will spring out of ditches, smash your windshield with the force of a cannonball and almost kill you.

On the side of the road after the accident, Mark and I dusted off the blue shards of glass that had sprayed onto our clothes and examined the few feathers and innards stuck in the cratered windshield. I asked if the last black wing-beats I saw before the impact didn’t belong to a pheasant. But Mark said it was a turkey, and Mark is from Iowa, so it was a turkey. With that settled, he called me another cab, and we stood outside the car, where everything around us—the farm’s wooden fence, the spindly tree branches and corn stalks shooting though the snow—wore a coating of glistening ice. Then we did what you do in Iowa in late December, three weeks before one of the most anticipated caucuses in decades. We talked politics.

Mark liked all the Democratic candidates and he knew without my prompting that Mr. Edwards had an event out in Indianola. He said that, personally, he leaned toward Hillary Clinton because he liked her experience. The cab driver who came to retrieve me, and drive me the rest of the way out to the Edwards event, said, “Mark is a moderate liberal; I’m so far to the right that you can’t see me. I’m almost a fascist.”

He was serious. He believed that Islamofascist terrorists, as he called them, would destroy America and bring about the end of days if not stopped by the full force of the American military. He wanted Iowa to secede from the union if the next president proved incapable of beating the terrorists back. I asked him which Republican candidate he liked. “None of them,” he said.

I said that he sounded like a Rudy Giuliani voter, but he said Mr. Giuliani was too soft on terrorism for his taste, which is something you rarely hear about Rudy Giuliani. Bob also had a problem with the default Republican position on immigration, but not the problem I expected. He called the idea of building a wall to stem illegal immigration between Mexico and the United States ridiculous. “It would divide two Christian countries that needed to unite to fight the Islamofascists,” he explained.

Bob dropped me off at the museum in Indianola, which had Edwards lawn signs stuck in the snow around the parking lot and icicles hanging from the rafters. “I better get out of here—enemy territory,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Edwards spoke at the Warren County Historical Museum, the central exhibit of which was an installation of opposing cubicles showcasing different collectibles—old medicine bottles, retro dresses and “maternal corsets,” or a barbershops chair—to evoke an old-fashioned main street.

Later that weekend, Mrs. Clinton appeared at the Antique Car Museum of Iowa in Coralville, where families piled into a red 1909 Reo, a green 1913 Rambler, a black 1924 Hupmobile and dozens of other old automobiles, and honked their horns when she was introduced.

During caucus time, such sleepy museums and cultural centers are overrun with presidential candidates and the Greek chorus of television crews and reporters who follow their every move. Unlike the locals, who wear bulky sweaters stitched with snowflakes, bring their crying babies to see the candidates and are unerringly polite and patient and smart about politics without being reflexively cynical, these reporters watch the same speeches again and again and again. Things can get stale.

The first time during this trip that I saw Elizabeth Edwards chomp at the bit while her husband spoke (“I didn’t even get through the first question,’’ Mr. Edwards said, to laughter), it seemed spontaneous and charming.

Then I watched the couple do variations on that routine in Manchester (“You just got here and you want to say something?”) and Elkader (“I usually do these by myself so, you know, it’s really hard to just sit there on the side”).

Somehow, the emotional impact weakened with repetition.

It’s also easy, upon watching stump routines in endless rerun, to develop minor obsessions with the candidates’ odd ticks.

Mr. Obama has a tendency to punctuate his responses in question-and-answer sessions by saying, “Alright? O.K.,” like some sort of seminar instructor.

Hillary Clinton’s has a habit of following awkward tangents: “Children, we know, are very inquisitive, they put everything in their mouths, they sleep with things, they lick things, you know all of that.”

Covering Mrs. Clinton in particular can feel like watching a candidate through thick aquarium glass—she sees you but can’t hear your questions no matter how hard you tap. As a result, the reporters who cover her sometimes seem positively starved for small kindnesses.

For the most part, the food provided to journalists on the Clinton campaign bus, while plentiful, is very, very bad. A vegetable wrap turns out to be a mayonnaise burrito, the pizza slices are tiny, like Trivial Pursuit wedges. The campaign aides dole out Tums like press releases.
And yet, the Clinton staff is also known for arranging gluttonous feasts in some of Des Moines’ best and priciest restaurants. (The Clinton staff orders, and the reporters pay.)

On Sunday night, about 35 reporters sat at a long, rectangle table. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, sat in the middle, effectively insulated by one of Mrs. Clinton’s friends and several well-placed press secretaries.

Mrs. Clinton was supposed to make an appearance, staffers later said, but bad weather grounded her plane. The reporters contented themselves with copious plates of fried calamari, fried ravioli and fried eggplant. For entrees, pork chops, steaks and scallops were most popular. Orders were placed for several $60 bottles of wine.

Ames, Dec. 15

The dreary work of campaign field operations—knocking on doors, chatting up old people and cold calling for a candidate—is often carried out by eager college students wanting to make their first inroads into politics.

That was not the case on Ridgewood Street in Ames on Dec. 15, when some of Hillary Clinton’s richest and most influential bundlers and donors—Hassan and Sheila Nemazee, Alan and Susan Patricof, and the former ambassador to Norway, Robin Duke—braved the icy elements and doorman-less ingresses of Iowa to proselytize for their good friend Hillary.

“Number-one convert!” shouted Mr. Nemazee, a multimillionaire investment banker who served as John Kerry’s New York finance chair in 2004. “I moved them from an Edwards to a Hillary.”

Mr. Nemazee, wearing iron-creased jeans, comfortable brown shoes, a blue winter coat and a red baseball cap emblazoned with a Ferrari stallion, was stepping cautiously along an ice-paved walk.

Across the street, Ms. Duke worked the even-numbered houses and was having a tougher time of it.

“Yoo-hoooo. Is anybody home?” she said as she pushed a screen door open and let herself through the sun porch of 728 Ridgewood. She peeked in the darkened window. “They’re all out Christmas shopping. Oh, wait. Oh, how do you do there?”

A woman with a suspicious look answered the door as the 84-year-old ambassador, dressed in an overcoat, checkered green pantsuit and green bowler hat rimmed with fine feathers, introduced herself, confidingly, as a friend of Mrs. Clinton. “I came all the way from New York and I know her and I can tell you she is so qualified,” said Ms. Duke, pushing some campaign literature into the reluctant woman’s arms.

The woman shook her head and curtly explained that she was with John Edwards. Ms. Duke graciously wished her a pleasant day and admired the roller skates hanging from her front door. “Well, I didn’t make a convert there,” she said after the door closed.

She paused at the edge of the driveway to express worry that, without a campaign clipboard to tell her which doors to knock on, she might waste time on Republicans or people her donor friends had already bothered. “I don’t want to be repetitive,” she said.

Surrounded by snow-plastered trees and houses and lawns and cars, she gingerly made her way on the sidewalk to the next house. “At least they have the crunchy stuff,” she said.

Back across the street, Mr. Nemazee had his own issues with the ice.

“I’m going to break my neck!” he screamed. “Where did Sheila go?” He meant his wife, who had the clipboards with the lists of voters most likely to support Mrs. Clinton. “I can’t find her.”

A few moments later, Ms. Nemazee, an attractive, amiable woman in a wool hat, walked out of a house with a clipboard.

“Sheila. Eight-fifteen. Nobody home,” her husband called out upon seeing her (815 had an Obama lawn sign sticking out of the snow). Sniffling in the cold, Mr. Nemazee rang the doorbell at 817. An elderly woman with short hair came to the door.

“I’ve come on behalf of Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Nemazee said, pleasantly. “I’m blessed, because I know many of these people running personally. May I ask you who you are supporting?”

The woman said Bill Richardson was her first choice, because of his experience, and after that she liked John Edwards. Mr. Nemazee asked if she planned to caucus.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s a very nice neighborhood event.”

Mr. Nemazee then asked her to consider supporting Mrs. Clinton if the other two candidates proved unviable. “You know,” said the woman, “I’m very fond of her, I’m not against her.”

Mr. Nemazee rewarded her with a Hillary campaign button. The young man who answered the next door had less interest in taking a button. “I’d be disowned for it,” he said.

Down the street, Susan Patricof waved hello. She wore a big coat and brown corduroys.

As the Nemazees and Ms. Duke came to greet her, Alan Patricof, the New York venture capitalist who founded a $20 billion private equity firm, appeared wearing jeans, brown hiking boots, a striped wool hat and a blue Hillary sticker on his gray Phat Farm coat. (The label’s founder, hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, has called Mr. Patricof his “godfather.”) “Susan’s the best,” Mr. Patricof told the Nemazees and Ms. Duke. “She was invited in for eggnog.”

After a brief chat, Mr. Patricof got back to business. On the walk up to the stoop of 1013, he said it was a tribute to Mrs. Clinton’s strength as a candidate “that five people from New York came out to walk the streets of Ames, Iowa, in 13-degree weather.”

As he removed his fingerless ski gloves to ring the doorbell, Mr. Patricof, a craggy-faced native New Yorker, complained that they didn’t keep his hands warm. A man with pink skin and a round face, like a character from the board game Guess Who?, answered the door.

“My name is Alan Patricof and I’m here from New York City for Hillary,” said Mr. Patricof.

“Well, you’ve got the wrong guy,” said the man. “I’m a Republican.”

“Well, everyone is entitled to their opinions,” said Mr. Patricof.

On the next house’s stoop, he shivered and wondered why the people of Ames didn’t go south for the winter. He pondered a copy of The Des Moines Register wrapped in snow-dusted plastic in front of the door, and deduced that the people of Ames read their papers later in the day.

Russ Hoffman answered the door in an Iowa State sweatshirt and plastic clogs. Mr. Patricof bent down to pick his paper up for him.

“We come from New York City,” said Mr. Patricof. “Five of us are out here, and this particular group is fortunate because we all know the candidates personally. I’ve known Hillary since 1988 and she’s highly qualified.”

Mr. Hoffman invited Mr. Patricof in.

In a shag-carpeted living room decorated with a Christmas tree, a yellow beanbag chair and children’s toys, the two men sat on opposite couches and discussed the candidates. A frisky white Maltese jumped up to Mr. Patricof’s knee. Mr. Hoffman shooed him off and said that he liked Mr. Edwards.

“Should I tell you the difference, since I know them all?” offered Mr. Patricof. “Hillary is ready to go.” He plucked off his hat and his wavy silver hair spilled out. “She knows so many foreign leaders; none of the others have any of the experience she has had on a foreign level.”

Mr. Patricof, who has a gruff, direct way of speaking, then told Mr. Hoffman about his own foreign experience: about his visit to Alexandria, Egypt, a month ago and Paris last week, and how the perception of the United States had suffered in the past seven years. Hillary was the one to restore the credibility, he said. And besides, “The fact that we are out says a lot.”

Mr. Hoffman calmly responded that a lot of people knock on his door, and that he liked the way Mr. Obama “thinks off the top of his head.” “I don’t think I see so much of that out of Hillary,” he said.

Mr. Patricof’s phone rang, and Mr. Hoffman assured him he would not be offended if he answered it. It was his wife and the others wondering where he had gone. He had been in the living room for nearly 10 minutes.

A couple of additional minutes went by without Mr. Patricof making much progress. Ms. Patricof called again.

“They’re freezing their asses off out there,” he said, and thanked Mr. Hoffman for his time.

Dunlap, Iowa, Dec. 16

Hillary Clinton badly needed to change the narrative.

She kicked off a five-day sweep through Iowa yesterday by rolling out a new, more personal stump speech, pushing her freshly acquired endorsement by The Des Moines Register and introducing a campaign helicopter.

She is, she said, “pumped up.”

She started the day in Council Bluffs, on the western border of the state, and at a local high school officially announced the endorsement of Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator.

When Mrs. Clinton took to the podium, she said that she was “energized and picking up the momentum.”

Mrs. Clinton’s new theme, with half a month until the Iowa caucuses, is Hard Work.
It is a theme she is comfortable with, and is one that has allowed her to fold more personal material into her stump speech. The result has been powerful: a speech she gave later in the afternoon, in Dunlap, was considered by many reporters here to have been one of her strongest performances on the trail.

After disembarking from what her campaign is calling the “Hill-A-Copter,” Mrs. Clinton mounted a stage built around a pen used for auctioning livestock. It had been decorated with bunting and bags that said “Beef: a Steak in the Future.” The smell of livestock was overpowering.

It could have been awkward, but to Mrs. Clinton’s credit, she played right along.

“I’ve been to cattle barns before and sales before, in Arkansas, but I’ve never felt like I was the one that was being bid on,” Mrs. Clinton told the members of the audience, many of whom wore cowboy hats. “I know you’re going to inspect me. You can look inside my mouth if you want.”

She spoke about the challenges her mother faced as an abandoned child and the tough love her father favored by talking about the way he’d shut off the heat at 10 p.m. in the dead of winter to save money on electric bills. To talk about health care, she recalled a family doctor.

She also used a more humanized and sentimental line of attack in contrasting her health care plan with Mr. Obama’s, which her campaign says is not universal because it does not mandate health insurance coverage for all Americans.

“Who would I leave out? Who would get to decide?” Mrs. Clinton asked.

After the speech, the press bus raced to a nearby field for the first photo opportunity of the campaign’s new chopper, which Mrs. Clinton is ostensibly using to avoid the icy roads and reach more small towns on her tour of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The press cheered at the rare acknowledgment of their existence, and she pumped her fist. As the helicopter took off, some of the reporters began humming “Flight of the Valkyries.”

Johnston, Dec. 17

Hillary Clinton is a human being.

That may sound like an oddly obvious message for a presidential campaign, but for Mrs. Clinton, who has faced six weeks of bad press coverage and 15 years of cartoonish characterizations from all across the political spectrum, it is an essential point that she is now emphasizing in an attempt to right the direction of her presidential bid with three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

“Here in Iowa I want you to have some flavor of who I am, you know, outside of the television cameras when all the lights and cameras disappear,” she said softly, in an unprecedentedly personal speech this morning to announce a new Web site called TheHillaryIKnow.com. “What I do when nobody is listening, taking notes or recording. Because it’s hard in public life to have that kind of sharing experience.”

Standing in a barn in front of about 150 people and dozens of reporters, Mrs. Clinton was introduced by four of her friends, each of whom swore to her, well, humanity.

One old friend and former Clinton Justice Department appointee, Bonnie Campbell, called her a “human being who is so empathetic, so compassionate and so supportive of others.”

Shannon Mallozzi, a woman from Long Island, told about how Mrs. Clinton personally ensured that her child, ill with a brain disease, receive proper treatment. “To be perfectly candid,” she said, “my perception of her was probably a media conception of her—a bit remote.” But then she talked about the Hillary she got to know: “Two moms sitting in a car talking about how to make life better for their children.”

The final speaker to introduce the candidate, Betsy Ebeling, became teary at the podium as she discussed her lifelong friendship with Mrs. Clinton. “Friendships are the things that maintain you through good and through bad,” she said. “She is loyal to her friends, she remembers them, she remembers their kids.”

“Do all of you understand that she is a mom, she is a daughter?” she said.

When Mrs. Clinton took the microphone, she spoke gently and thanked her friends. She picked up on an element from her old stump speech, that many people in America are “invisible,” and said that her life’s work has been “to try and help people who are doing the best they can, but life sometimes has a way of hitting you upside the head.”
She then ventured into what is for her mostly uncharted territory, talking about her own experiences growing up: how, for example, she wore thick glasses in junior high and high school and how that made it tough for her to meet boys.

“We’re not all the same in every setting we find ourselves, are we?” she said, arguing that people are composites of the many different faces “that all add up to the people we are.”

The speech included criticism of an opponent, Mr. Obama, although even that was couched in explicitly personal terms.

Picking up where she left off yesterday, Mrs. Clinton said that when she first drafted her health care plan, some advisers told her it would be politically expedient not to include a mandate for universal coverage.

“In other words, you want me to leave out millions of people from my health care plan; so O.K., who do we leave out?” she said. “Do we leave out Shannon’s daughter? People say she has a deteriorating condition. Maybe we should just leave her out.”

Des Moines, Dec. 18

One way to cause pandemonium in a Hy-Vee supermarket in Des Moines is to send Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Magic Johnson there at the same time.

The trio entered, in size order, and greeted a group of high-school students in the market’s coffee shop. (Hillary said, “Hello!” Bill said, “Good Morning,” and Magic said, “What’s up, baby?”)

Despite the best efforts of Mrs. Clinton’s staff, it wasn’t long before Mr. Clinton wandered out of a roped-off area and towards the deli counter. Along the way, he was asked about his wife’s new, more personal, emotional tack. “I do think having people who know her is a good thing,” he said. “I think it’s great.”

A scrum of reporters followed the former president. Many of the kids and grocery store employees hovered around Magic. Only Hillary was left with plenty room to maneuver.

The former president didn’t discourage the attention. He answered questions about Joe Lieberman’s endorsement of John McCain. And he talked to an Entertainment Tonight reporter about what he does during his downtime with Hillary. (“We’re always laughing about something,” he said.)

Mrs. Clinton’s handlers were not at all pleased with the former president for monopolizing the press.

“Jay!” Huma Abedin, her traveling “body person,” yelled at Jay Carson, who is currently Hillary’s traveling press secretary, but who used to be the president’s spokesman. “These kids have to go to school and you guys are doing this? Are you kidding me?”

Mr. Carson broke up the impromptu press conference moments later, and the reporters moved back to a blue rope, where Hillary said how excited she was to have Magic Johnson out campaigning with her. The first question went to Mr. Johnson, about whether he would run for mayor in Los Angeles.

“The citizens have asked me,” he said, but he wasn’t interested.

When asked why he was supporting Mrs. Clinton instead of Mr. Obama, he answered, “Thirty years’ experience right here. This is not going to be an easy job.”

Mrs. Clinton was then asked about what seemed to be her renewed vigor on the stump.

“You mean I got my groove back?” Hillary said. “I feel great. I feel great. You know, I love campaigning.

“You know, I occasionally read what you write,” she said adding, “I know that people have been saying, you know, we got to know more about her, we want to know more about her personally. And I totally get that. It’s a little hard. It’s a little hard for me. It’s not easy for me to talk about myself. I’d rather talk about Magic.”

Des Moines is Iowa’s central hub, and while most reporters sleep at the Marriott, with its dependable monotony and coveted reward points, the Hotel Fort Des Moines exudes a certain old-world charm. (In some circles here it is known as the “Hotel Itchy Scratchy.”) There are a lot of hotels and motels and fast-food restaurants in Iowa. Days Inn and Kum & Go, Comfort Inn and Arby’s appear at regular intervals and hang over the highways like neon lampposts.

During a long drive from Dubuque on the state’s eastern border to Council Bluffs, which is separated from Nebraska to the west by the Missouri River, I passed more than a dozen cars laying abandoned and embedded in the ice on the side of the road. Some had flipped onto their sides, probably blown over by gusts of wind, or they had skidded on the frozen black puddles that lurk at nighttime just inches outside the white lanes. Or they had collided with the deer you can hunt eight times a year. Or they had been taken out by low-flying turkeys.