TOPICS > Politics

Presidential Race Off to Early Start

February 12, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Obama arrived in an Iowa where the caucus campaign was already well under way. That puts heavy demands on a small state with a big field of candidates. There are offices that have to be rented, phones to be installed, volunteers to be recruited, and political pros to be hired, the kind of people who make a caucus campaign go.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I stand before you today…

RAY SUAREZ: Obama supporters at Iowa State in Ames got together at the student union to watch the Obama campaign kickoff. In a small state, big schools are a rich target for organizers.

CHRIS MACKENZIE, Obama Supporter: Because the students are such a large proportion of the population in Ames, that we do really have an affect on who ends up getting their caucus votes.

RAY SUAREZ: The active and committed, like Chris Mackenzie, are looking for young voters ready to pick a candidate, like Kelsey Nation.

KELSEY NATION: I don’t know much about politics, but since I was old enough to vote, just seeing what was out there and seeing names, and names after name after name, and this is just something that just popped out at me, and so I started paying attention. I mean, I saw him on the Oprah show. He’s just — his name is getting out there, and it’s interesting.

Staff members deal with early start

Jennifer O'Malley
John Edwards 2008
It's very early, so, you know, there's so much that can change between now and the caucus.

RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Rynard is the leader of College Democrats at Drake University in Des Moines. With candidates getting young people actively interested, excited about the coming caucuses, the good news and the bad news are the same: It's so early.

PATRICK RYNARD, President, Drake University Democrats: You know, we're having a hard time figuring out how to keep, you know, make that enthusiasm, you know, turn it into effective actions, because, if you don't have anything to do for them right away, they might get bored over time. So that's my biggest worry about it starting this early.

RAY SUAREZ: Jennifer O'Malley worked the Iowa caucuses for John Edwards in 2004, when the North Carolina senator's surprisingly strong second-place showing catapulted him into the top tier in a crowded field. And she's on board again for '08.

JENNIFER O'MALLEY, John Edwards 2008: You know, it really is early, and there are so many strong candidates that know what it takes to have a very strong grassroots operation here. And they know, as well as we do, how to build a foundation.

So I think that, you know, everyone is starting, understanding sort of what the requirements are and are going to be putting in the time. And it's very early, so, you know, there's so much that can change between now and the caucus.

The value of experience

Steffen Schmidt
Iowa State University
With a field this large, they're all going to be essentially sopped up, and you want the best that money can buy.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite the early start, the campaign's previous experience is helping a lot.

JENNIFER O'MALLEY: We start out with a great foundation, something that we've continuously been working on. And, you know, the folks here in the room are making calls to people that we've talked to, you know, not two years ago, but people that we've been talking over the last two years to really, you know, keep a conversation with them.

STEFFEN SCHMIDT, Iowa State University: Citizens don't like their politicians to abuse power...

RAY SUAREZ: When a campaign is ramping up, almost a year before the caucuses, local radio host and Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt says people like O'Malley, with on-the-ground Iowa experience, are a hot commodity.

STEFFEN SCHMIDT: There are some superstars out there who can organize a caucus and organize a campaign, both the fundraising and the tactical, as well as the strategic aspects.

Those people are very valuable, and you have to get them on board early, because there aren't that many of them. And so that's one reason, with a field this large, they're all going to be essentially sopped up, and you want the best that money can buy, so to speak.

RAY SUAREZ: He's also talking about people like Chuck Larson, former state Republican chairman and state legislator, running Iowa for Sen. John McCain.

CHUCK LARSON, McCain Exploratory Committee: We've worked very, very hard to build the right team and the right campaign team here in Iowa. Now we're reaching out to the activists across the state to build a strong team for Sen. McCain. And it's exciting.

RAY SUAREZ: Sen. McCain gave Iowa a pass in 2000, when he was running against then-Gov. George W. Bush, choosing to concentrate on New Hampshire, where he won. This time, says Larson, he can win Iowa. This summer's Republican straw poll is his chance to show that.

CHUCK LARSON: That's a tremendous opportunity and a test run for the caucuses. So we'll build our organization; we'll recruit our county chairs; we'll recruit our precinct captains; we'll recruit our team leaders, essentially. And then we'll drive them towards the straw poll in Ames in August.

Reaching out

Bonnie Campbell
Hillary for President
We want to be creative in finding ways to reach out to women who maybe haven't been active politically before.

RAY SUAREZ: Until then, it's retail politics: ground war, offering chances to meet the candidate...

CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: Hi, this is Lynn, and I'm calling on behalf of Sen. John McCain here in Des Moines and wanted to extend a special invitation to you and your family with an event that Senator McCain is going to be in town for, next Saturday the 17th.

RAY SUAREZ: And Democrat Hillary Clinton is on the ground, too. Senior adviser Bonnie Campbell, former Iowa attorney general and candidate for governor...

BONNIE CAMPBELL, Hillary for President: We want to be creative in finding ways to reach out to women who maybe haven't been active politically before, to broaden that base of support. It's a very nuts-and-bolts political organization. People think it's glamorous. It's actually somewhat tedious, but it's important. And it builds a sense of excitement.

RAY SUAREZ: As an example, Campbell counts the large, enthusiastic crowd at Sen. Clinton's recent campaign visit to Iowa as both a success and a show of organizational strength. Even those who haven't yet officially declared their candidacy go to Iowa. Republican candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visited this past week.

RALLY ATTENDEE: I like what I heard.

MITT ROMNEY (R), Former Governor of Massachusetts: Hey, thank you, Joyce.

High stakes in Iowa

RAY SUAREZ: Romney's Iowa director Gentry Collins says the stakes are high this year in Iowa.

GENTRY COLLINS, Romney Exploratory Committee: There are fewer opportunities after Iowa for candidates to break out of the pack. He has to set himself, you know, above the other candidates in the race. And therefore what happens in Iowa over the next year I think is more important than it's been in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: On the Democratic side, a favorite son, former Gov. Tom Vilsack is in the race, formidably connected, well-organized for years.

In the past, favorite son candidates have had the effect of reducing the pressure on other campaigns. They make a state less of a test for outsiders who are running against an opponent on his or her own home turf.

Attention could then shift to other early states New Hampshire and Nevada. So far, Vilsack hasn't had much of an impact on the polls in Iowa.

Training volunteers, making posters, filling rallies, 11 months before a single Iowan trudges out to a caucus site in the January cold. And along with those Iowans ready to commit early are supporters who want a call back in about three months.