Who made Iowa so important, anyway? Four years ago, the ambitious Governor of another small state dismissed Iowa and its clumsy caucuses as a waste of time. "If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests in both parties, [and] the special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people," Vermont's then governor Howard Dean said on an obscure Canadian public-affairs program. The caucuses can stretch on all night, Dean noted, and he expressed wonderment that average people would even bother with them: "I can't stand there and listen to everyone else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world."
But he did, and Iowa returned the favor. Since making those comments--unearthed last week by NBC News (part of a mountain of Dean's earlier television appearances that the Bush-Cheney campaign has also been poring over)--Dean has been one of Iowa's most frequent visitors. He has made 103 trips there since February 2002. Everything he said about the caucuses was true--and still is--but as it turns out, some of those very characteristics proved the making of Howard Dean. In his unlikely transition from underfunded obscurity to the front of the Democratic pack, Iowa was where he found both his voice and his rationale for running. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Dean discovered you can hear a lot just by listening. He had planned to run on a high-fiber policy diet of health care, early-childhood education and fiscal discipline, he recently told TIME. But in Iowa he learned something about voters that had not yet popped up on the national radar. "There was an intensity and kind of feeling by ordinary Americans that their government didn't care about them, didn't value them, and their employers didn't value them," Dean recalls. "It wasn't anger, though. It was despair. It was feeling loss of value--and it was in Iowa, and Iowa's not an angry place."
Dean--and six other Democrats--will soon know whether all the time they have spent in Ottumwa and Council Bluffs and Davenport and Fort Dodge has paid off. Iowa's first-in-the-nation contest is only a week away, and most polls show Dean holding a narrow lead over Congressman Dick Gephardt, who won the caucuses in 1988 and whose candidacy will be all but finished if he doesn't eke out another victory this time. Gephardt is drawing most of his support from older, less affluent Iowans, Dean from upscale, educated and more socially liberal voters. The choice reflects the generational struggle within the party, and it's a test of whether the new voters Dean claims to have recruited will be enough to overcome the forces that have dominated the caucuses. There is even a fight to be the best also-ran, with a spirited battle for third place being waged by Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Though no one really trusts the predictions, turnout is expected to be double the 61,000 who braved the winter chill to vote in the 2000 caucuses. Whatever the number, a significant share of the voters--13%, in a KCI-TV poll last week--are still undecided. Once again Iowa is proving to be an unpredictable crucible, molding and remolding candidates and their messages in a state with a population smaller than metropolitan Cleveland.