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Iowa: Hillary Looks Shaky in a Pivotal Contest

After months as the front-runner, Hillary Clinton suddenly finds herself in a three-way heat.
 
 
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Iowa is not like other states. There's fuck-all to do here, and unless you just love dirt or barnyard sex, you could easily die of boredom -- except in an election year, when suddenly you become the center of the universe. Iowa political events sometimes seem like meetings of Athenian elders; every last audience member seems to have read the text of the Military Commissions Act, and even the best-prepared candidates come out of town-hall meetings looking harried and tested. And these days, the candidate who looks the worst for wear in Iowa is Hillary Clinton.

Here's how bad it's gotten for Hillary of late: Rival candidates are literally tripping over each other in an effort to knock her wobbling campaign off its pedestal. For the first time since this race began, three major candidates are in a three-way tie at the top of the Iowa polls. A primary season that looked like a prolonged slam-dunk coronation a month ago has morphed into a scene from the Spike TV classic Predator, with her seven pursuers fingering the green blood on the ground and whispering with a weary smile about the once-invincible monster:

If it bleeds, we can kill it.

It's Wednesday afternoon in a public library in Monticello, Iowa, a windy little two-saloon town south of Dubuque, and the foxily dressed Michelle Obama ("Jimmy Choos," she says, pointing to her sleek brown boots; they stand out like a set of Ferrari headlights in this room full of bundled-up farm-town housewives) is about to read a story to a bunch of local kiddies. What elevates the event beyond the standard issue campaign-wife-with-kids schtick is what's happening downstairs, on the floor of the library directly below Obama: There, a crowd of clean-cut twenty-somethings almost identical in appearance to the Obama team is setting up a meeting room for a campaign appearance by John Edwards. The way it's being arranged, Edwards will be exactly underneath Michelle Obama when he takes the mike. Only in the stretch run before the all-important Iowa caucus can two presidential campaigns land on the exact same geographical pinpoint on the vast planet Earth at exactly the same moment, entirely by accident. The whole state is like a supercharged game of political Battleship.

"It's crazy," says Newsweek's Holly Bailey, who is seated next to me at the Edwards deal. "I show up here to follow Edwards, go upstairs to charge up my computer. Next thing you know, I'm staring at Michelle Obama."

Not only are the Democratic hopefuls crawling all over Iowa, nearly all of them are pimping the same message. In the wake of a nearly catastrophic two-week run in the Hillary Clinton campaign -- a period that saw the stone-faced former first lady rocked by a series of spastic missteps just shy of "Dean Scream" magnitude -- the campaigns of John Edwards, Barack Obama and the other Democrats are each attacking a different recently exposed flank of the Hillary Express.

You can clearly see that dynamic at work in the Monticello logjam. Upstairs, in her thirteenth visit to this state, Michelle Obama is playing the same game her husband has been playing of late -- hammering Hillary without mentioning her by name. She refers pointedly to politicians who voted to support Bush's invasion of Iraq: "There were a lot of people with a lot of experience," she says, "who marched right behind that drum."

The reference isn't lost on anyone. "Yeah, I caught that," says Molly Pisarik, an Iowa voter sitting in the audience. "Obviously she's talking about Hillary."

Downstairs, John Edwards is being even more explicit. After whipping the crowd into a frenzy with an impassioned speech blasting the influence of lobbyists and corporate campaign contributors, he turns the gun on his own party. "The presidential candidate who has raised the most money from Washington lobbyists is not a Republican," he says. "The candidate who has raised the most money from insurance companies isn't a Republican. The presidential candidate who has raised the most money from defense contractors isn't a Republican."

He pauses, then smiles. "The answer to all those questions, you probably already know, is Hillary Clinton," he says.

This scene in Monticello takes place exactly fifty days before the January 3rd Iowa caucus, which means we've entered the white-hot weeks of the primary season. In a presidential campaign dominated almost from start to finish by gobs of corporate money, a captive commercial media and reams of computer-generated rhetorical bullshit, the frenzied stretch run in this tiny first caucus is one of the last bastions of real democracy left in the process; it's a state so small and so rife with opportunities for intimate politician-voter communication that even the richest and most powerful front-runner can't cruise to victory on endorsements and name-recognition alone.

Advances in campaign tactics mean that nearly every campaign now has enough reach to score at least one face-to-face with every voter in the state, a fact reflected in the experiences of those attending the events in Monticello. Pisarik, who is still undecided, was led to Michelle Obama's appearance by a volunteer handing out fliers on the street; that chance meeting in turn led to her checking out (and being impressed by) Senator Obama himself when he made a local stop. Molly's mother, who is also in the audience, says she is bombarded daily by phone calls from the rival campaigns -- presumably, she says, because she is registered on the party's list of previous caucusgoers. ("It's only my second time," says Molly. "They aren't onto me yet.") Finally, there's Molly's twenty-three-year-old friend Jnee Offerman, who was turned on to several candidates via political outreach groups contacting her on Facebook, now a common method of reaching young voters. "I had people contacting me months ago," says Offerman.

Downstairs at the Edwards event, Harold and Patricia White -- an elderly couple who liked Edwards very much, despite taking issue with his "anti-religious language" when he promises to give lobbyists and special interests "hell" -- both say they couldn't get away from the campaigns even if they wanted to, because of the sheer quantity of TV ads. "You see 'em ten times a day," grumbles Harold.

At both events, the campaigns ask everyone coming through the door if they're planning to caucus -- and if they are, could they please fill out cards with their contact information, so the campaigns can hit them again and again before the all-important vote after the new year. There's simply no place to hide in Iowa at this time of year. Not for voters -- and not for front-runners, either.

Saturday, the day before Veterans Day, Des Moines. I'm in the upper deck of the local veteran's hall, a cavernous, convention-center-type complex, trying to keep my head down during the introduction portion of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a massive event at which some 9,000 state Democrats turn out to see six of the party's top candidates speak. The setup here is reminiscent of a giant high school pep rally, with each section of the audience turned out in bright uniform colors and placards and screaming like dipshits for their respective candidates. I'm up in the Hillary section, trying to get some video of the politicians entering the hall down on the first floor, when a girl next to me suddenly whacks me on the head with an inflatable Los Angeles Angels-style HILLARY rally-stick.

"What the fuck?" I say, frowning and rubbing my head.

"Sorry," she says curtly. Then she turns back to the floor, where Hill is making her entrance, and starts pounding her silly fan-stick again. The Hillary section starts in with their slogan:

"TURN UP THE HEAT! TURN UP THE HEAT!"

But the chant peters out quickly. "Sucky slogans this year," observes reporter behind me.

"Yeah," his colleague agrees. "Obama's got the only good one."

And sure enough, when Obama himself enters the hall a few minutes later, the whole place vibrates with his two-part chant:

"Fired UP!"

"Ready to GO!"

"Fired UP!"

"Ready to GO!"

Obama's slogan seems just as dumb as Hillary's to me, but I must be wrong, as the "Fired Up!" chant inspires dead silence in the Hillary section, which is suddenly full of long, envious faces. There would be accusatory whispers in the press in the days following that suggested that the Obama campaign trucked in "ringers" from Illinois to this Jefferson-Jackson deal to rig the noise levels at the event, which was widely pronounced a big win for the Illinois senator. Obama's speech -- unremarkable in its policy specifics but effective in its open echoing of a Dr. King-esque forensic style -- was hailed as the evening's class performance.

Obama is a tough guy to figure. He's a tremendous, magnetic speaker when he is facing a big crowd and has a prepared address in his pocket, but his extemporaneous stumpery in smaller settings is sometimes weirdly nervous and maladroit (in Grundy Center, he recently barked at an elderly town-hall questioner, insisting that he takes terrorism "deadly serious"). His much-hyped decision to take a "forceful stand" against Hillary in recent weeks smacked of the worst kind of hot-air horse-racing bullshit, with the candidate suddenly jumping through hoops to prove to the media that he could exhibit the requisite "aggressiveness" before he'd even decided what issues to "take a stand" about. The overall impression is of a soft-spoken intellectual who's suddenly desperate to show that he's ready to be as full of shit as it takes to win the White House -- a psychological state that put Mike Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry in a duck-hunting costume and killed off many a highbrow candidate who blinked in the punishing glare of The Process.

Whatever his shortcomings, Obama is very effective at using his relative freshness as a politician to highlight Hillary's almost Belichickian level of smugness, the reptilian air of inevitability surrounding her candidacy. In Iowa, all of Hillary's weaknesses as a candidate are on display -- her short fuse, her instinctive pandering, her fierce desire to control every aspect of her environment, her familial penchant for smoking issues without inhaling them and her reflexive paranoia, doubtless brought on by a lengthy stint serving as the human whipping post of the conservative right. In person, Hillary sometimes comes across as a caricature of the modern career woman who's had to go too far to prove that she's tough enough to hang. Now, with all of her traits thrust under the media glare, the Iowa race has quickly returned to wide-open status; the week before Thanksgiving, polls showed Hillary in a statistical dead heat, with Obama edging into the lead for the first time. Only three months ago, she led Obama by eleven points.

The trouble for Hillary actually started in early October, at a campaign stop in New Hampton, Iowa. Clinton teed off on an audience member named Randall Rolph, who asked her a pointed question about her vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. "The premise of the question is wrong," Clinton snapped. "Somebody obviously sent it to you." Rolph angrily objected to the implication that he was a plant, leading to a poisonous exchange.

Things got worse. During a Democratic debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia on October 30th, Clinton -- who is nothing if not scrupulously prepared and on-message in debates -- fumbled a question about a New York proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Hillary appeared to support the plan, then backtracked after Chris Dodd blasted it -- opening the door for Edwards to rip her one. "Unless I missed something," Edwards cooed, "Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." From that point forward all of her rivals, as well as a predictable assortment of media assassins, began pounding the flip-flop theme. The sudden wave of negative attention seemed to throw Hillary off her game. First she reportedly forgot to tip a waitress named Anita Esterday at a Maid-Rite diner in Toledo, Iowa. Then her campaign made matters worse when it went back and left $20, inspiring yet another run of ugly headlines.

And it didn't stop there. A few weeks later, after Hillary outlined a renewable-energy plan during a town-hall event in Newton, Iowa, she called on a Grinnell College student named Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, who asked a question about global warming. Gallo-Chasanoff later told her campus newspaper she'd been asked by the Clinton campaign to lob the softball. Not long afterward, a minister named Geoff Mitchell revealed that the Clinton campaign had asked him to pose a question at a different event about how Hillary would be tough on Bush about funding the war.

By then a full-blown controversy over the planted questions was raging, and Hillary seemed to be stepping in shit every time she went outside. On November 11th -- ironically in Waterloo, Iowa -- Hillary experienced the kind of unscripted fuck-up that can derail a campaign in the media age, getting entangled with four American flags, Chevy Chase-style, as she tried to leave the stage following a Veterans Day campaign stop. "I think that the bases are not weighted," Hillary screeched as she frantically tried to right the toppling flags.

All of these on-the-trail mishaps were accentuated by some starkly unattractive strategic moves emanating from her campaign headquarters -- including the much-decried decision to play the female-victimhood card after being ganged up on at the Philly debate. Even worse, at the Las Vegas debate on November 15th, Hillary took a page directly out of the Karl Rove with-us-or-agin-us playbook, accusing her rivals of resorting to Swift Boat-style tactics in their criticisms of her. In the world of Democratic rhetoric, that's akin to calling peace marchers a bunch of warmongering baby killers.

"Hillary had a really, really bad couple of weeks," says Joe Trippi, the famed campaign Svengali now lurking behind Edwards. "It gave everybody a chance to get back in the campaign."

I run into Trippi in Monticello, where he's easy to spot; if there's a guy who looks like he borrowed his clothes from a sleeping vagrant standing behind a fist-shaking populist, it's probably Joe Trippi. But even without actually seeing Trippi at an Edwards event, one might have deduced his presence. The campaign of John Kerry's former yes-man running mate has been transformed into a "Give 'em hell" insurgency -- rhetorically, at least, a strong echo of the last presidential horse Trippi rode in this derby, Howard Dean.

On the campaign trail in 2004, Edwards struck me as a hardworking pretty boy hack, a working-class kid who'd chosen to make an inoffensive career for himself waving pompoms and carrying water for the team. He reminded me of a teenage townie caddy grateful for a summer internship in the big-city firm of the country-club president. But the 2008 version of Edwards looks like a completely different animal. Spurned by a Clinton-dominated party apparatus that has emptied its treasure chest for Hillary, Edwards has reinvented himself as a whistle-blower candidate, railing against the corruption in his own party. His stump speech sounds almost desperate in its ambitious earnestness, a balls-out broadside against a party establishment that left him behind.

"I have seen the seamy underbelly of what happens in Washington every day," he says in Monticello. "If you're Exxon Mobil and you want to influence what's happening with the government, you go and hire one of these big lobbying firms. This is what you find. About half the lobbyists are Republicans. And about half of the lobbyists are Democrats. If the Republicans are in power, the Republican lobbyists take the lead. They're lobbying the Congress, they're passing the money around. If the Democrats are in power, the Democratic lobbyists take the lead.

"Here's the point," he adds. "They're pushing the same agenda for the same companies. There is no difference."

When Edwards is done making his point, he hurriedly reaches for a copy of that day's Des Moines Register to wave an example -- a front-page story about drug companies lobbying the Democrat-controlled Congress to stall legislation that would have prevented brand-name firms from delaying production of cheaper drugs. It is just the latest example of the pharmaceutical industry buying off the Democrats who, when Edwards was the running mate four years ago, were all too happy to let Bristol-Myers Squibb hire the Boston Pops to play a Ted Kennedy tribute at the Kerry convention while drug legislation they opposed was on the table.

Watching Edwards raise the curtain on this stuff now, I am struck by how he can't fucking wait to show the crowd the newspaper story. He has the same look on his face I once saw on Dennis Kucinich -- another lower-class kid who made it to Washington -- when Kucinich was scrambling to show me the ugly details in the fine print of NAFTA. By the time Edwards finishes his presentation -- in which he promises unequivocally to bring all combat troops home from Iraq within a year -- he has the crowd standing and cheering.

Watching this, I can't help but think that this electoral phenomenon had been willed into being by the overreaching arrogance of the Clinton campaign. Hillary's machine plays the power game so flawlessly that it leaves the casual observer with the unmistakable impression that, just as it rigs the questions in town halls, it wants to leave nothing about the election to chance. You see the candidate trotting back and forth across Iowa with former governor Tom Vilsack in her pocket (and, most likely, the vice presidency dangled in front of his lumpy forehead), dragging with her a giant mercenary army of support staff (in recent weeks the Hillary campaign hired 100 new workers in an effort to visit 50,000 homes in Iowa by Christmas) as she spends mountains of money from her vast war chest ($360,000 for advertising in one week alone).

And when Hillary errs, as she has done many times in recent weeks, she tends to err on the side of burning the ordinary schmuck and sticking to the inside play. You don't see too many Fortune 500 CEOs complaining that Hillary stiffed them on a tip; no, that only happens to some Iowa diner waitress, at the same time the lavishly funded Hillary is out on the trail trying to explain her support of the Wall Street crowd's sweetheart Peru Free Trade Agreement (to Midwest audiences that already know all they need to know about the NAFTA her husband passed). This is the significance of all the stumbling and audience-rigging and Rove-ing of debate opponents and carping at the Randall Rolphs of the world that we saw in recent weeks; they have exposed Hillary as a New York Yankees-style villain who buys all the best players but seems to resent having to actually win it between the lines.

That palpable anger at being disrespected as an opponent seems to be what's driving the Obama and Edwards candidacies, which have both scored points of late by hammering Hillary as a control-obsessed insider (Obama assailed Hillary's refusal to release records from her time as first lady; Edwards ripped her in the Vegas debate for rigging the town-hall questions). While Obama is essentially attacking from the center, criticizing her not for being a part of a corrupt system but for simply being a flawed candidate, the anger displayed by Edwards appears to have an ideological component that threatens to bring the Ned Lamont-Joe Lieberman dynamic into the Iowa race; his candidacy opens the door for the caucus to be a referendum not just on Hillary, but on the corporate-dominated agenda of the Democratic Party.

When Clinton backers told the New York Times recently that Hillary is moving from "primary mode" to "general election mode," it was not only an infuriatingly premature declaration of victory, but a surprisingly candid admission that their candidate has two faces. What's happening now is that Hillary is taking punches in both of those faces, with Obama punching her general-election face and Edwards hitting her in her primary face. Not a good place to be, with a month to the vote.

Even without all the punching, it's a bit premature for Hillary to be taking Iowa for granted. Given the curious procedural rules of the state's caucus, even third-string candidates like Joe Biden and Bill Richardson can wind up swinging the race. The way this deal works is that on caucus night, meetings are held in each of the state's ninety-nine counties to divide all the caucusgoers into groups supporting this or that candidate. If any candidate group scores less than fifteen percent in any given precinct, members of that group can move to a viable group, or move to a nonviable group to make it viable, or just walk away and not be counted.

In a dead heat like the current race, that means a fringe candidate could virtually dictate the outcome by swinging his groups to one of the three leaders. Biden, whose new swept-back white-haired look almost completely obscures his plugs on the trail, has managed to go many months in a row without insulting Indians or Negroes or otherwise jamming his foot in his mouth, an amazing show of restraint that might win him the job of secretary of state. Dodd, the Connecticut senator who has one-upped the field by actually moving with his family to Iowa, has made serious gains here, winning the support of the firefighters union, whose organizational strength was a key factor for Kerry the last time around. Bill Richardson's goofy-ass yukster TV ads (showing him sitting with a long face before an indifferent job interviewer unimpressed with his long résumé) are among the most overplayed in the state, and although his massive emphasis on Iowa has not thrust him into contention, he is still running at about eleven percent in the polls. Even Dennis Kucinich, selling a message very similar to Edwards, is retaining a small but insoluble percentage of the vote.

That's a real problem for Hillary, whose base in Iowa may be thinner than it looks. More than sixty percent of Hillary's supporters here say they have never participated in the state's caucuses. That, strategists say, suggests that many of the party's more reliable, rank-and-file caucusgoers have thrown their support to other candidates. When January 3rd rolls around, many of Hillary's "name recognition only" voters may be at home, while the Athenian zealots pack the halls with their own lists of hand-picked, not party-picked, choices. All of which means that there are a lot of votes still in play in the first vote of the primary season. Somebody is in line for a third-place death blow -- and for the first time since this race began, it's not a given that it won't be Hillary.

"Whoever comes in third," Trippi tells me, "will be in for a world of...." His voice trails off. "If Hillary comes in third after spending all that money," he finally concludes, "how does she explain that?"

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.

 
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