TOPICS > Politics

Iowa Campaign Trail

January 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: We get a firsthand look from the NewsHour’s own Margaret Warner. She’s been in Iowa covering the candidates this week, and joins us now from Des Moines. Margaret, in fact you were at that Gephardt event today, seems there’s so much energy we hear about Governor Dean, but there seems to be so much energy happening with the next tier of candidates.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s very true, Gwen. Gephardt’s event today, and we had been at one two days ago, was very, very different than his usual one. Usually he speaks to these small groups of voters and it’s all very earnest and quiet. And he doesn’t use any notes, and they asked a few questions and then they all declare their support.

Today, as you saw, if you caught that image, he had a teleprompter, he had a written speech and he was very, very tough on Howard Dean. In the past he’s always gone through this litany of issues on which he says dean has flip flopped such as NAFTA, such as Medicare, but his phrase has always been Howard’s been all over the lot on these issues, he’s never gone further than that.

Today as we heard, he really basically accused Howard Dean of tailoring his message to fit this Democratic primary. Much much tougher, his staff wanted to make very clear that we were going to go and cover it. And I think it just tells you about the intensity in which this campaign is moving.

GWEN IFILL: Part of that intensity I gather is happening on the air waves, I know that Howard Dean had a new ad today where he attacked Dick Gephardt and John Edwards and John Kerry by name for what he considered was their support for the war in Iraq. So is this a little tit for tat going on?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it is, and it’s interesting, Gwen, apparently this speech of Gephardt’s I’m told by his top advisors had been in the works for several days, but when that ad appeared on Iowa television stations yesterday morning, and when it appears you see it every five minutes practically, or it feels that way, the Gephardt folks really toughened up the speech and I’m told it wasn’t just the staff, Gephardt himself was very involved in toughening up that speech.

GWEN IFILL: So there must be something happening here, some sort of trend that’s going on right now in this last week before the real voting begins, these candidates are beginning to sense that they are all, you know, high hot on each other’s heel.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s very true, Gwen, and we always say polls particularly in Iowa don’t mean as much because you don’t know how many people will participate, but setting that aside it is still clear there are all kinds of private polls and candidate polls and they are all showing the same trend, which is that Dean, who held a fairly secure lead just three weeks ago has fallen back into the wherever he is, I won’t use any numbers, but let’s say it’s the mid-20s, Gephardt say stayed just where he is, but that Kerry and Edwards who had seemed to be kind of toiling in obscurity are suddenly starting to pick up support, or interest. And when these pollsters who are calling every night now reach people, they’re starting to suggest they have a real interest in Kerry and Edwards.

GWEN IFILL: You’ve seen John Kerry out there on the stump, how much has his campaign changed?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a good question. I was out here in November and saw Kerry, and then again this week and the differences really clear. That excerpt that you ran or we ran tonight in a way wasn’t as indicative of what I saw yesterday where I spent most of the day with him.

Actually he now takes off his coat, he doesn’t have notes, he wades out into the audience, he looks at the name tag of the person asking him a question and tries to relate the answer to that person’s problem. These veterans are turning out for him, which he had always, it was always part of his strategy, but no one thought it would work, but it seems to be working, and his rooms are filled to overflowing.

GWEN IFILL: You know the Iowa caucus, we always talk about what a complicated process this idea of getting your neighbors to come out and debate who to vote for, for 45 minutes or longer on a cold Iowa night. But it’s a very complicated process and that explains a little bit, I hope, I hope you can explain it to me, why there is such a grouping at the top now and such a fierce competition at the end.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I’m not sure it explains why there’s a grouping at the top, but it will explain why maybe the grouping at the top might not pan out on election night. That is because organization is so important.

As you said we always say organize is important and it’s complicated, but I had actually never been to a caucus, though I’ve covered the caucuses many times, so last night we went to a Kerry caucus training session, where these young organizers from out of state had a lot of Kerry supporters, maybe 50, at 7 o’clock at night, a few donuts and cookies, and they answered questions for a while about how the caucuses would work and then they directed them in this mock exercise in which they all went into different corners of the room and then showed them what would happen if in this group they didn’t have 15 percent, how you’re supposed to go over and try to persuade members of that group, who would not be counted otherwise to come and join your group.

There are all these people milling around in the center of the room. It was really something to see. So that’s the question, in other words, Gephardt and Dean both have a committed cadre of well organized people who basically know how this process works. The belief is that Kerry has a pretty good organization, Edwards maybe not as strong, and that is this daunting process so daunting that in the end organization wins.

GWEN IFILL: And even organization can’t determine what the weather is going to be like on caucus night.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s true. The prediction is actually for fairly good weather, plus it’s a holiday, which may, you know, as the betting goes here, may actually help turnout.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Margaret, stay warm. Thank you.