AMES, Iowa — National security was widely expected to be the defining issue of the 2008 Iowa caucuses — yet major candidates don't talk much about it, voters rarely ask about it and the hopefuls with the fattest foreign-policy resumes are far behind in the polls.
Explanations are legion: The sagging economy is more on people's minds. Democrats generally agree on withdrawing from Iraq, and most Republicans agree that the troop increase there is working. Many voters say they know where candidates stand on terrorism, so they're looking at other issues. And they won't seriously consider foreign-policy veterans such as Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson because it seems they can't win.
The thinking of Mark Tomer, an Ames research soil scientist, is typical. He wants to know where people stand on foreign policy, poverty and energy conservation.
"All the (Democratic) candidates are putting the right emphasis on foreign policy," he said, so he wants to hear more about the other subjects.
Such as the economy.
"The economy is beginning to disturb people," said Jenna McCarley, a retired lab technician from Ames. "They're afraid of a recession."
Candidates counter that they're doing all they can to stress their credentials and views on national security. But the standard 20-minute stump speech and the usual seven or eight voter questions that follow hardly permit in-depth discussion. Go to the campaign Web sites, they urge, for specifics.
Voters who are interested in foreign policy sometimes say they're reluctant to bring it up because all they'll get is sound-bite quick answers.
"I really need to hear more detail, but I'm afraid the candidates are afraid to step out," said Jeff Calentine, a project manager from Nevada.
Brenda Schumann, an Ankeny real estate agent, heard Democratic New Mexico Gov. Richardson give a 25-minute speech in Des Moines on how to deal with turmoil in Pakistan. She left unsatisfied, saying, "I still don't think he was specific enough."
Richardson talked about how Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf should be ousted now. But, Schumann lamented, "he really didn't say what should go in his place."
The next day, Schumann went to Altoona to hear former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican. He barely mentioned foreign policy. She's still undecided on a candidate.
This is all particularly frustrating to the candidates with extensive foreign-policy pedigrees. Richardson, for instance, was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, and at the start of his speech last week on Pakistan, he reminded his audience, "I've represented America throughout the world."
Sen. Dodd, D-Conn., a onetime Peace Corps volunteer and second-ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is eager to engage audiences on the subject.
The resume-topper is probably Biden, a Democrat, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He gets deeply personal; in his appearance Monday at the Ames Public Library, he regaled the crowd with anecdotes about his meetings with foreign leaders, at one point doing an imitation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak calling Biden on the phone.
"I know these leaders by their first name," Biden said. "It does not make me important, but it gives me insight into what they think."
The overflow crowd of about 400 liked his views, but saved its biggest applause for other matters.
After his stump speech, he took seven questions; five concerned domestic policy.
Now that you've explained your foreign policy in detail, Ames interior designer Amie Svec asked, please explain your education policy.
Biden went on for about 10 minutes, and got his loudest cheers of the day when he quipped, "No Child Left Behind . . . should be left behind."
People in this crowd made it clear: They care about foreign policy, but they care at least as much about their homes, budgets and neighborhoods.
"I want a complete turnaround over the next eight years, so I see domestic policy as important as foreign policy," said Terry Jensen, an Ames physicist.
Luann Basart, an Ames retiree, figured that the threat of terrorism is remote to most folks here in the heartland.
"I think Iowans feel pretty safe," she said. "They care more about domestic policy, because that affects them immediately."
Biden and his fellow foreign-policy veterans also face another hurdle, the kind voiced by Lil Wiesman, a university admissions counselor. At a Dodd house party last week, she said she'd probably wind up voting for Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York or Barack Obama of Illinois.
"Everyone wants a winner," she said, "and I just don't think Biden or Dodd have enough support."