NEWS

Chuck Sweeny: It's showtime -- Iowans kick off 2008 marathon

Chuck Sweeny

The marathon that is the 2008 presidential election starts today in Iowa, as thousands trek through the cold and snow to their precinct caucuses to vote for their favorite candidates.

This is the first election since 1952 that neither Republicans nor Democrats have had an incumbent president or vice president seeking the presidency.

Iowa may not always forecast the eventual Republican and Democratic nominees, but the caucuses do weed out lower-tier candidates. So on Friday morning, we should have no more than two or three candidates per party.

For the Democrats, a low caucus turnout helps John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

Both are favorites of the die-hard union crowd, which forms the backbone of the Democratic Party’s activist base. They’ve been caucusing faithfully for decades.

Edwards came in second in the 2004 caucuses, winning 32 percent of the delegates to John Kerry’s 38 percent. Clinton has significant support from her days in the White House as Bill Clinton’s wife. The ex-president is calling in favors on Hillary’s behalf, but he didn’t contest Iowa in the 1992 caucuses because Sen. Tom Harkin was running as a favorite son, so his help may be limited.

However, the man who has the momentum going into Thursday’s caucuses is Illinois’ own Barack Obama. He leads in the Des Moines Register’s latest poll, released Monday. It shows Obama with 32 percent, Clinton at 25 percent and Edwards at 24 percent.

Obama’s support is building among young voters, although he also has solid support among Iowa elected officials. If Obama’s “change” campaign has convinced enough independent and Republican voters to show up at Democratic caucuses, his lead will hold.

Some Boomer commentators are saying Obama’s support isn’t as strong as it appears, because he’s a black candidate and whites don’t like to tell poll-takers they won’t vote for him. Obama, however, transcends race and appeals to a wide cross-section of the electorate.

In fact, Obama’s candidacy reminds me of another black man whose appeal to voters exploded racial barriers — Rockford’s own Charles Box. When Box first ran for mayor in 1989, longtime Democratic leaders like Zeke Giorgi feared that Rockford, then 80 percent white, would not elect Box because of his race.

But Box easily won the Democratic primary, then campaigned throughout the city and won the general election — and all wards — with 63 percent of the vote over his Republican challenger. Voters of all colors in that election said they were excited to go to the polls and vote for Box.

If “change” trumps “old guard,” Obama wins.

For the Republicans, the battle is among Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Huckabee is surging, but the former Massachusetts governor is better organized and has outspent the former Arkansas governor. McCain has not paid much attention to Iowa, concentrating instead on New Hampshire’s primary on Jan. 8.

I think Huckabee has the advantage. The former Baptist minister is popular among Iowa’s large evangelical community. Many evangelicals are wary of Romney’s Mormon faith. Republicans, hobbled by the unpopularity of President Bush and his trademark Iraq war, aren’t nearly as motivated this year as Democrats. Caucus turnout among Democrats will likely be higher by half than Republicans.

But even if caucus turnout for both parties is as high as 300,000, it still would represent only a fraction of Iowa’s 2 million voters. Not very democratic, but that’s how they do things in Hawkeye country.

Reach Political Editor Chuck Sweeny at 815-987-1372 or csweeny@rrstar.com.