The Iowa State Fair annually draws turkey callers, cow-chip throwers and piemakers from across the Hawkeye State. This year's fair, which begins next week, is attracting a crowd of competitors from farther afield: possible White House contenders hunting for votes ahead--way ahead--of the Iowa presidential caucuses in January 2008. Democratic Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joe Biden of Delaware and the Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are all expected to swoop in to smile, shake hands and maybe taste the fair's famed fried Twinkies. Also planning to visit Iowa in August: 2004 Democratic running mates John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas, New York Governor George Pataki and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
That kind of intense, early focus on Iowa--whose caucuses kick off the voting each presidential year--is not new. During the 1988 campaign, Democrat Dick Gephardt of Missouri even had his mother move from her St. Louis home into a Des Moines apartment--a better base from which to woo the state's elderly voters. The difference this year is that "people are coming in earlier and more often than they ever have," says Gordon Fischer, former head of the Iowa Democratic Party. The influx reflects a wide-open contest for the White House. For the first time since 1928, no incumbent is bidding for re-election and no sitting Vice President is seeking a promotion. So aspiring Presidents see an opening--and it goes straight through Iowa's fair tents and cornfields.
It might be financially advisable for some candidates to do as Mrs. Gephardt did and rent a place in the state. Edwards has made six trips to the state this year, and Biden plans to spend 15 days there in August alone. "If you don't end up exceeding expectations in Iowa, it's over," Biden told TIME, emphasizing the importance of the caucuses.
Iowans who happen to be out of the state this month--say, in a more typical summer-vacation locale--need not worry. Presidential candidates will be as plentiful as steak houses in Des Moines for months to come. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and ex--Virginia Governor Mark Warner have already visited--and will probably be there in the fall. Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who hasn't totally ruled out a White House run, heads to Iowa in September. And Hillary Clinton's biggest booster--husband and former President Bill--will speak to Iowa Democrats in October. Then there's the hopeful who is pretty much always there--Democrat Tom Vilsack is Iowa's Governor. But all candidates should keep in mind that a politician doesn't win by Iowa alone--Gephardt, with Mom's help, won there in '88 and went on to lose the Democratic nomination.