ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa — Barb Jones is a foot soldier in John Edwards' Iowa political army — one of the people Edwards is counting on to keep his White House bid alive.
A 45-year-old mother of five, Jones is making telephone calls and knocking on doors for Edwards. She recently helped set up a rally in the northwest corner of Iowa, a remote landscape filled with cornfields that borders Minnesota and South Dakota, where Edwards was the first Democratic presidential candidate to venture this year.
It is people like Jones and off-the-beaten-track places like Rock Rapids that Edwards hopes will be his political salvation.
Edwards is counting on a broad network of Iowa volunteers such as Jones, carefully built over two presidential campaigns and dozens of visits, to sustain him against his better-financed Democratic opponents, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton and Obama are dominating the Iowa television airwaves. But come the night of the Jan. 3 caucuses, Edwards hopes his organization will muster a majority at the schools, churches and libraries where Iowans will gather to cast the first ballots of the 2008 presidential campaign.
"We are very organized," Edwards said after a recent stop in Iowa. "We know how to do this. We know how the Iowa caucus works. We know the hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work that has to be done. I don't think Iowa caucus voters are a television-driven vote. They are looking very hard at each one of us."
For Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate, the Iowa caucuses may be a make-or-break moment. In recent months, Edwards' early lead in the Iowa polls has evaporated as his rivals have begun major television advertising campaigns. The University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll released this week showed Clinton with 29 percent, Obama with 27 percent and Edwards with 20 percent — down from 26 percent in August and 34 percent in March.
Since late June, Obama has spent $3.5 million on TV in Iowa, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent $1.8 million and Clinton has spent $1.6 million. Edwards has spent nothing. Edwards, who has a far smaller war chest than Clinton and Obama, has been holding back on his TV campaign until closer to the caucuses.
Edwards is betting that organization will trump money.
The Edwards campaign claims it has the broadest network of volunteers in the state. It notes that Edwards either won or came in second in 52 of Iowa's 99 counties in 2004, when he finished second to Sen. John Kerry. Edwards has been trying to build on that support since then.
"Edwards is certainly competitive," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "He left the "04 caucuses with a lot of good will among Democrats. He has visited a lot of counties. He has done the kind of trench warfare that the caucuses require."
All the major Democratic candidates have massive campaign infrastructure in a state that has less than half of the population of North Carolina. Edwards has 15 campaign offices in Iowa, compared to 33 offices for Obama and 24 for Clinton. Edwards has 130 paid staffers in Iowa, compared to 117 for Clinton and 145 for Obama, according to a tally by The Des Moines Register.
The Edwards campaign is also counting on the organizational muscle of labor unions to get his supporters to the caucuses. Last month, Edwards was endorsed by the Iowa chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which has 2,200 members in Iowa. Edwards has been endorsed by unions that represent 15,000 workers and their families in Iowa, according to his campaign.
Goldford said during a good turnout, as many as 100,000 will vote in each of the Republican and Democratic caucuses.
In small town after small town, Edwards not only gives a speech, but fields all questions from the audience. Then he hangs around to pose for photographs, sign autographs and chat. At the end, he asks everyone to fill out a card with contact information.
Edwards recently told a crowd of more than 100 people at a cattle auction house in Dunlap, about an hour east of Omaha, Neb., that it wasn't hard to be there that day.
"The question is, who is going to show up on a cold January night to caucus?" he said. "We need you to be there on caucus night. We need for you to be there when it really matters, when you are going to choose who is the next president of the United States."
Edwards has made more appearances in Iowa than any candidate, according to a count by The Des Moines Register. Last week, Edwards was in such towns as Corning (population 1,783), Boone (12,803), Iowa Falls (12,803), Forest City (4,262), Colton (262), Ames (50,731), Marshalltown (26,000), Newton (15,579) and Des Moines (198,000).
Last month, Edwards was in Rock Rapids, a heavily Republican town with 2,500 residents tucked away in the northwest corner, where people commute to work in Minnesota and South Dakota.
When he held an event there during the 2004 election, Edwards said, no more than seven people showed up.
This time, 150 people attended a speech in the firehouse. Among those who helped turn out the crowd was Barb Jones.
This is the first time that Jones has volunteered for a presidential campaign. A homemaker married to a lumber yard salesman, Jones said that, with her children growing older, she can now do more volunteer work.
As a Democrat who lives in a Republican-leaning area, Jones thinks Edwards would have a better chance of capturing the White House than Clinton or Obama.
"The number one reason is he is the most electable," Jones said. "I think John Edwards could take the swing votes. I like his health care plan. I like his personality. I appreciate that he and Elizabeth have been through some tough times with the loss of a son and kept their marriage together.
"With Elizabeth's cancer returning, the fact they are going on with the election shows he has what it takes to be a leader. He's so down to earth he can relate to anybody."
Edwards' Iowa army has a strong blue-collar flavor. It attracts people who appreciate Edwards' up-from-the-mill-town background, his pro-union views and his emphasis on issues such as health care and poverty.
"He's down-home folks," said Alan Whitmore, 57, of Logan, who drives a snowplow and grass mower for the state Department of Transportation. "He comes from the trenches. He said he went to college to become a lawyer to protect them people out there who need help."
Whitmore said he is spending Sundays working the phones for Edwards and will be the Edwards leader at his precinct caucus meeting — responsible for making sure Edwards supporters get to the polls and arguing for people to support Edwards at the meeting.
Tracy Hatfield, 43, of Muscatine, is a heavy equipment operator at a municipal power plant. He has been active in the Iowa caucuses since he was in high school. Hatfield backed Howard Dean four years ago. This time he is backing Edwards.
"I want to stand up this time for a guy who is pro-union," Hatfield said. "The thing that sealed the deal for me is his talking about poverty. It's getting harder and harder for people who work for a living. Not everyone is going to college. We need jobs where you can earn a decent living."
Hatfield is knocking on doors, working phone banks and helping park cars at Edwards events. Hatfield says Edwards has the best ground organization in the southeastern part of the state, where he lives.
The Edwards campaign has also passed Hatfield's particular test.
"When I work the second shift and get off at quarter after 11," Hatfield said, "there's somebody in the office."
ABOUT THE CAUCUS SYSTEM
The Iowa caucuses are particularly suited to grass-roots, neighbor-to-neighbor campaigning.
The caucuses are a complicated process, where voters gather in 1,784 precincts. They require people to meet, divide themselves into groups according to candidates, regroup when candidates who receive less than 15 percent are eliminated, and vote again. The whole process can take two hours and a person has to disclose his or her vote publicly in front of neighbors, and maybe even a person's boss. The system is set up to benefit a candidate with support in all 99 counties, rather than candidates whose supporters are concentrated in a few areas — benefiting candidates with backing in rural areas.
"The biggest thing about the caucus is you have to convince people to get out of the family room on a cold night and go talk about politics for a couple of hours," said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "So it's extremely important to have a ground operation to identify people likely to go out and caucus."
(Christensen reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)