Down to the Wire in Iowa
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: John Kerry traded in his campaign bus for a helicopter one day last week to double the number of Iowa towns he could hit in a day. It was a pricey move for a man who’s already loaned millions to his own campaign…
HOWARD DEAN: Are you from Iowa? Are you going to caucus?
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I need you. I got a few more days. We’re past all the preliminaries. It’s time to choose a president.
MARGARET WARNER: Their appeals grew more frantic as polls showed the race tightening and flip-flopping. Antiwar candidate Howard Dean, who just ten days ago seemed to be rolling to victory, saw his comfortable lead evaporate over Iowa’s well-known neighboring congressman, Dick Gephardt. More surprising, Kerry, who had been stalled for months, vaulted to a narrow lead, and Sen. John Edwards, who had been even more obscure, jumped into contention, too.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Thank you all! Thank so you much for being here. This is an overthrowing crowd, this is very exciting, this is an exciting time.
MARGARET WARNER: By yesterday, Iowa’s leading newspaper poll declared tonight’s caucuses too close to call. Gov. Tom Vilsack has never seen anything like it.
GOV. TOM VILSACK: The fact is this, anybody can win this race, and anybody can lose it. And the margin of victory could be wild or it could be very narrow.
MARGARET WARNER: What happened here in Iowa to unravel Dean’s lead? In the final days, he was still hammering the issue that had once catapulted him to the front of the pack, his opposition to the Iraq war that his Washington rivals had voted for.
HOWARD DEAN: I believe the president wasn’t being candid with the American people when we went to war and I stood up and said so, and we wouldn’t be there today in Iraq if the Democrats had stood up and said so.
MARGARET WARNER: Dean still thinks the war is a defining issue.
HOWARD DEAN: It stands for something large, I stands for the fact that I’m willing to stand up against the Washington establishment not when it’s popular but when it’s right, and that is what people really want in the next president of the united states.
MARGARET WARNER: His rivals admit they were damaged here by their Iraq war votes.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I paid a big price for months, and it’s been a process of trying to really explain to people how there was a right way to stand up to Saddam Hussein and there was a wrong way to do it.
MARGARET WARNER: But judging from the questions Iowa voters ask on the stump, the decision to go to war doesn’t seem to be the burning issue it was even late last year.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I think that people have sort of moved on in terms of going to Iraq. But we’re now at the stage where they’re looking at bigger things. I mean, they really are choosing a president now, and they’re looking for different sort of character, integrity — whether they believe you’re sincere.
MARGARET WARNER: For economically struggling Iowa, the four leading candidates are all pushing a populist theme, that President Bush and his wealthy supporters have stacked the deck against the middle class on everything from taxes to education to health care.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We live in a country where there are still two Americas, one for those in positions of privilege and power who get whatever they want when ever they need it, and then one for everybody else.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: There’s a reason that for 25 years in Iowa you’ve been talking about small family farms and trying to save them. And they still are disappearing. And the reason is the money, the big powerful money and powerful interests that aren’t working for the average person, they’re working for the bottom line.
MARGARET WARNER: The real argument the candidates are having is over what kind of Democrat it takes to beat President Bush. That’s what’s driving the up and down polls. Iowa voters like most of the candidates, but keep changing their minds on who’s more electable.
GOV. TOM VILSACK: I think that there is some question about that, so they are looking at the entire field and rethinking decisions that they may have made a couple months ago.
MARGARET WARNER: So what you’re saying is they’re look, for who’s the best messenger?
GOV. TOM VILSACK: They want the first team, because at the end of the day we need a first team. Make no mistake about it, President Bush is an unbelievably formidable opponent.
MARGARET WARNER: Dean tells audiences it will take a Washington outside here didn’t go along with the president on the war, tax cuts or his education bill.
HOWARD DEAN: The guys I’m running against for president all voted for this stuff, look they’re not bad people, but we’re not going to beat George Bush by trying to be like him.
HOWARD DEAN: I think the Democratic Party in the last couple years has lost elections because they tried to be a pale shadow of George Bush, the idea which is always the Washington idea is that you co-opt the other person’s ideas and move closer to them and then get elected. That’s not going to work this time. This is the most far right president we’ve had in my lifetime, and we can’t be co-opted any more, the Democratic Party will be meaningless.
MARGARET WARNER: Edwards, a former trial lawyer turned one-term senator, agrees it will take an outsider.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Do you believe that someone who’s been in politics all their lives or has been in Washington, D.C., for decades is going to bring about that kind of change?
MARGARET WARNER: But he insists an optimistic one. Dean still is tapping into something, some level of frustration that Democrats –
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Oh, it’s real. Democrats are very angry and frustrated at Bush, that’s real. But my point is not that that’s not real and we don’t need to talk about it, we should. But we need to take slang of that energy and passion and turn it into a positive vision for the country, it’s absolutely critical to us being successful in the fall.
MARGARET WARNER: Edwards also says it will take someone who has the broad appeal peel of working class southern roots.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I need you to reach out to everybody. They’re going to say to you, wait a minute, this is the guy we’ve been looking for, the guy that can beat Bush? Here’s what I want you to tell them — I want you to tell them, this is the guy who can beat Bush everywhere in America, in the North, in the West, in the Midwest, talking like this in the South.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: We’re going to take this country back!
MARGARET WARNER: Gephardt disagrees, saying the most credible challenge will come from the Democrat with experience.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: If we’re going to beat George Bush we need somebody who is steady, reliable, somebody that really has experience, we can’t have training wheels on the next president. We’ve got to really know what they’re doing. And I think that’s going to be an asset.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I thank you very much for joining and being part of that spirit.
MARGARET WARNER: Vietnam vet and seasoned Senator Kerry agrees experience will be an asset in November, but experience of a different sort. He explained this to Iowa veterans, a group he’s courting heavily, in waterloo.
MAN: Can you tell us why those of us who are uncommitted should support you.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Here’s the reason. We have to beat George Bush. And we’re going to need a nominee of our party who has the credibility to be able to say, this president is not conducting the war on terror in a way that in fact is the most effective way to win and protect America in the long run. In a time of war, we’re going to need a leader who gives confidence to the American people that you can keep America safe. We’re not going to get to talk about any of the other issues unless we can leap over that national security hurdle.
MARGARET WARNER: Veterans like Vietnam-era Navy man Tim Powers of Waterloo clearly respond.
TIM POWERS: John Kerry will be able to motivate veterans to turn out. Why? He’s one of us. You see it in his eyes when the questions are asked.
MARGARET WARNER: Non-vet audiences respond, too.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Ladies and gentlemen, I know something about aircraft carriers for real, and if George Bush wants to make national security the central issue of this campaign, I’ve got three words for him I know he understands: Bring it on! (Applause)
MARGARET WARNER: As the race got tighter, it also got nastier, particularly in voters’ mailboxes. Dean, after floundering under attacks in two late debates, told reporters last week he wasn’t going to be a “pin cushion” anymore, and he rolled out a new ad — with an old theme.
AD ANNOUNCER: Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war?
HOWARD DEAN: I opposed the war in Iraq and I’m against spending another $80 billion there.
MARGARET WARNER: Kerry who attacked Dean last fall but has kept his Iowa ads positive, blasts Dean for is in new spot.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Last week Howard Dean said that he’s running a campaign on straight talk, and that he was going to run a positive campaign. But today we see he’s gone back to the old style negative attack ads of campaigning when the real target is George Bush.
MARGARET WARNER: But Gephardt stepped up his attacks too, calling Dean a phony for railing against Republican policies Gephardt says he used to support.
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: To me there is no room for the cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction. I believe in standing for something and I think all of you do too.
MARGARET WARNER: And Gephardt launched a new negative ad of his own.
AD ANNOUNCER: How much do you really know about Howard Dean? Did you know Howard Dean called Medicare one of the worst federal programs ever?
REP. DICK GEPHARDT: I will be a president who will fight to protect Medicare and Social Security.
HOWARD DEAN: Howard Dean wants to get rid of Medicare, of course I don’t want to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, what a ridiculous thing to say. I think he’s desperate, these guys are scared to death. This elect is about power, it’s about who’s going to have the power in Washington.
MARGARET WARNER: But Dean does believe the attacks have hurt him.
HOWARD DEAN: I do think all the hammering I’ve taken for the last two and half, three months has taken its tolls — there’s no question about that.
MARGARET WARNER: Edwards believes his upbeat ads and his refusal to attack in debates and elsewhere is paying off, especially with undecided voters.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: All day today I’ve had people coming up after the event saying I was with Dean, I’m switching, I’m for you.
MARGARET WARNER: By the weekend, both Dean and Gephardt had pulled their negative ads. So how did this play with Iowa voters? There are clearly Dean defectors, like retired bank officer of Donna Casey of Messina.
DONNA CASEY: I did consider Howard Dean, but I have eliminated him in my mind.
MARGARET WARNER: Why?
DONNA CASEY: I just think he is sort of a cocked pistol sometimes.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet Dean’s bluntness is attracting plenty of new caucus participants, like this Des Moines secretary Alissa Bowman.
ALISSA BOWMAN: I like that he says what he thinks, and I know that sometimes he’s a little dangerous, I guess, not thinking before he speaks. But I think that that’s important, I think sometimes politicians come across as too practiced and too poised and not heartfelt enough.
MARGARET WARNER: Gephardt also has many loyalists, like Cass County farmer Bill Behken, who are comfortable with Gephardt’s plain spoken views and style.
BILL BEHKAN: Dick comes across to me as a person that speaks the truth, I feel very comfortable with the way he talks and puts things into a way that I can understand.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet even some Gephardt backers can see why he’s had trouble attracting new supporters.
WOMAN: Gephardt has been in the Washington, on the Washington scene for a long time, which is both pro and con, because he has the experience but he is also perceived as a Washington insider. So it’s kind of a Catch 22.
MARGARET WARNER: The two candidates coming on strong at the end seem to have finally overcome their early hurdles. Kerry, who was criticized as remote and aloof, has pulled off his jacket and works crowds as if he really enjoys it. Vietnam vet Wade Sanders, part of Kerry’s out of state veterans brigade, isn’t surprise bid his friend’s late surge.
WADE SANDERS: In every campaign he’s ever had, when ever anybody started to doubt that maybe he wasn’t going to make the final stretch, John Kerry always knows when his homework is due.
MARGARET WARNER: Edwards who seemed to strike Iowans as too young and inexperienced, now pulls them in with his smile, his smart and up from poverty story.
CHERYL BRODERSON: I read about you coming from a family down to earth, that’s what I’ll say, and that’s me. That is me. Coal burner stove in the kitchen, no bathroom in the house growing up. That’s me.
MARGARET WARNER: In the final days, many undecided Democrats told us they were weighing Kerry’s aura of experience and command against Edwards’ charisma. But given the complexity of the caucuses, organization historically has trumped momentum.
WOMAN: Let’s start with going to your preference.
MARGARET WARNER: In Newton, an out of state Kerry operative trained local supporters on how to literally stand up for their candidate on Monday night and also told them what to do if a rival candidate’s group doesn’t reach the required 15 percent threshold.
WOMAN: So say caucus night as the Kerry campaign people, if you guys are see a group that’s not viable, this is when you’ll have the chance to talk to the other people about why you’re supporting John Kerry, why they should join you.
GROUP: Good morning, everybody!
MARGARET WARNER: The premium on ground troops should favor Gephardt with his blue collar unions and Dean with his service unions and out of the state volunteers. But given the high turnout expected tonight, even that piece of conventional wisdom, like so much else in this wild campaign, could be turned on its head.
JIM LEHRER: Now some final words, to Margaret in Des Moines — from Margaret in Des Moines. Margaret, speaking of organization, what’s happening now, what happened today about getting these folks who support these individual candidates to go to their caucuses tonight, how is that working?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jim, as you know, the whole caucus apparatus is based on the notion that you know who your supporters are, so all the campaigns have already got what they call their hard count, they know who these people are; they’ve got precinct captains in all 1990 precincts in the state, and they’ve had literally thousands of people on the street, and on the phone today, these volunteers, calling all their hard count as they call it or their ones, that’s the lingo.
The most visible have been the Dean volunteers, who wear these orange hats, they’re trying to create what they call the perfect storm tonight, and you can literally see them running around in Des Moines, still knocking on doors. Kerry has an — Gephardt of course has the labor unions and they’ve been very busy, they claim they’ve got nearly a thousand people out identifying their voters. The Kerry folks, while not having as big an outside organization like big labor unions, also are working the veterans very hard. For instance one Kerry organizer told me they’re even going to go out just before caucus time at 6:30 and sweep through the VFW and American Legion halls.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any unique system, are they all essentially following the same kind of thing, identifying, calling during the day? How do they make sure they actually get there tonight?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, there are some interesting variations. The most, all of them, there’s a magic window between 6:30 and 7, you’re supposed to show at 6:30, but you have until 7 to arrive. So the three major organized ones, the captains will be there, they’ll have a signup sheet, if someone hasn’t shown up within two to five minutes, by 6:35, they’ll start calling them.
Dean people, however, are doing something different. They’re going to have all their supporters meet in advance, either at a person’s house for a party, at the Starbucks across the street or the caucus site. So that they will know even before 6:30 whether their folks have shown up and then they can go out and get them.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret, are there any people going to go to these caucuses tonight who were not organized to go to them?
MARGARET WARNER: Jim, I think they will, and this is what Edwards is counting on, and I don’t mean Edwards doesn’t have any precinct captains, because he does
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: But I went to a huge Edwards rally yesterday, and afterwards there was a guy in a union T-shirt and I went up to him and I said, you know, he was an electrician, a union electrician; he was planning to go out for Edwards, he said, and he was a pretty young guy, and I said, well, has anyone called you or contacted you or asked you to go or tell you where your caucus site is, and he said, no, no one’s called me but I know where it is, and I said, OK, where is it and he said Brubaker Elementary School; he knew exactly where it is.
There’s been so much advertising, so much mail, there’s been so much media out here that it’s possible that the turnout will be even larger than the Dean folks had hoped, and that Iowa voters might treat this more like a primary, in which case the organizational advantage while huge isn’t everything.
JIM LEHRER: I know what the polls say. You’re — anecdotally, you’ve been out there several days now, do you buy the conventional wisdom that this thing, the governor said to you, it could go one way or another in a huge way or it could be very, very tight. Do you have the same feeling of uncertainty about it?
MARGARET WARNER: Definitely uncertainty, which is what makes it such a great story to cover. I’m not sure there will be a blowout for anyone, but I’m not in the predicting business. But there is no doubt of the volatility of people shifting. As recently as yesterday, people still said to me, boy, I’m weighing Kerry and Edwards, I can’t quite make up my mind, wouldn’t they be great on a ticket together. That has never happened before in a caucus situation. You know, when they get to the caucuses tonight too there’s this whole question of if one group doesn’t have 15 percent, then we saw that chaotic training session, the others can try to recruit them. So anything could happen really.
JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you very much, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim.