DES MOINES, Iowa — Roughly 10 weeks before Iowans cast their influential votes for presidential nominees, Hillary Clinton is about to become a pinata.
She has the edge among top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the state, polls show. But her lead in Iowa is smaller than it is anywhere else in the country. And her chief rivals, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., probably have to stop her there if they’re going to stop her anywhere.
“At this stage, she looks pretty good. But it puts a big target on her back,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. “Time is getting short. The other guys have got to shake up the race.”
They already are.
Both teed off on the New York senator’s recent vote encouraging President Bush to declare Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist foreign organization, calling the Senate's 76-22 approval of the resolution a “blank check” for war like the one that preceded the war in Iraq. They hope to energize the strong anti-war vote among Iowa Democrats and turn it against Clinton.
"Now is the time where we're going to be laying a very clear contrast between myself and Senator Clinton,” Obama said recently. “Not just on the past, not just on Iraq, but on moving forward."
During a campaign swing through Iowa this week, Edwards called Clinton’s Iran vote a mistake. “I don’t think you can give this president an inch when it comes to a war,” he said.
Mindful of how Iowans turned away from front-runner Howard Dean in the closing weeks of the 2004 campaign, Edwards also appealed to them not to simply fall in line with the public opinion polls, which show Clinton ahead.
“Did I miss something? Did we already have the Iowa caucuses?” he told several dozen Democrats at a farm near Harlan, in western Iowa. “Have we decided who the nominee’s going to be? Have you decided?”
But Clinton has courted Iowans after an initial temptation to skip a state where Edwards already had campaigned extensively and Obama’s Illinois ads had made him familiar in Democrat-rich eastern Iowa.
It’s paid off, as she’s pulled ahead in seven of the last 10 Iowa polls.
The most recent, released Thursday by the public relations firm Strategic Vision, found Clinton with the support of 28 percent of likely caucus-goers, Obama with 23 percent and Edwards with 20 percent. All other candidates trailed well behind in single digits.
The top candidates all want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, all propose to expand health care to the uninsured and all would raises taxes on the wealthy.
So voters are swayed by personality, experience and style as much as anything.
Clinton stresses that she has “strength and experience” to change Washington, so much so that an Iowa aide used that exact phrase in response to five different questions. Edwards portrays himself as the only true outsider. Obama vows to end political gamesmanship to get things done.
The potential wildcard is young people.
Obama thinks he’s going to get a surge of support from college-age voters drawn to his promise of a less cynical and more pragmatic politics. Aides think those young people aren't showing up in today’s polls because they only have cell phones, which are off limits to pollsters.
That sounded right to several people who attended an Obama town hall meeting this week in Des Moines.
“I sense a change in momentum,” said Bob Gitchell, a retired surgeon from Ames. “The polls are missing a big part of Obama’s base. Young people only have cell phones. They’re missed by the polls.”
Brian Bonnano, 21, a student of environmental studies at Iowa State in Ames, agreed. Like almost everyone in his dorm, he said, he has only a cell phone. And like most of his friends, he said, he’s for Obama.
“The crowds on college campuses are unprecedented. The excitement level is unprecedented,” said Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa state Democratic Party who supports Obama. “I do think he’s reaching people who don’t always caucus.”
But will they show up one night in January and spend the hours it takes to organize a group of fellow Obama fans in the sometimes complicated caucus system?
Young people often don’t show up. They didn’t turn out as promised for Dean in 2004. They didn’t show up for Bill Bradley in 2000.
In fact, Goldford noted, no candidate in either party has managed to attract a new group of voters to the Iowa caucuses since evangelist Pat Robertson did it with Christian conservatives in 1988.
If they do show up in big numbers, they could defeat Clinton and turn Obama into a once-in-a-generation political force like Robert F. Kennedy. If they don’t, it might take a more traditional campaign attacking Clinton and her lead to stop her.