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Stumping in Iowa for Hillary

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 17, 2008

Legions of friends and former employees from President Bill Clinton’s administration flocked to Iowa to assist his wife, Democratic presidential candidate and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. This writer was among an army of volunteers characterized by one staff person as “everybody but the Third Marine Division out here.” The importance of a solid showing in the first presidential contest is vital for any candidate to remain viable well into the primary season.

During her concession speech on caucus night, it was evident that the Clintons certainly are the embodiment of the Democratic party’s establishment. The likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and retired Army General Wesley Clark stood on stage behind the Clinton family. Those surrogates were among many stumping throughout Iowa, lending great credibility to their candidate. Despite our intense personal door-to-door and telephone campaigning, Clinton placed third, just one percentage point behind runner-up and second-time caucus candidate John Edwards.

The political caucus process is a folksy, quirky, community-based social gathering that was created for neighbors to publicly discuss and stand up for the candidate of their choice. Unfortunately, the caucus process has evolved over the years with two significant flaws – its short and specific time period limits participation while its casual social setting can lessen the intensity of a campaign. Consequently, Iowans reject pietism, harsh rhetoric and negative television commercials during their first-in-the-nation selection process.

Iowans also demand a personal, up-close style of campaigning that lends to both excitement and exhaustion for the candidates and their staffs. While most caucus goers expect candidates to court them, some actually keep track of how many times each candidate contacts them through mailers, telephone calls and door-to-door visits. By caucus week, many casual Iowans were annoyed by last-minute campaigning and refused any contact from the campaigns. Some even changed their support on a whim, like one college student who abandoned Edwards for Clinton after the Secret Service kept him isolated in 2004 for arriving late at an Edwards event. Interestingly, though, a great number of Iowans remain undecided as they enter the caucus room.

For the Clinton campaign, Hillary enlisted the former president to stump across Iowa – two mega-speakers in one campaign. The president’s stump speech laced humor with serious pronunciations as he captivated Democrats in an hour-long session. He is fond of relaying the story of how a year ago a good friend asked him, as a former president, to arrange tee time on an exclusive golf course near the Clinton home. The crowd chuckles as Clinton quotes his reply to the friend, “You used the operative word, ‘former,’ but I’ll try.”

The story continues with how Clinton, as part of a foursome on the golf course, is the last to putt on the green. As he turns to leave, already trailing behind his golf party, Clinton’s caddy stops him to admit that he is not a caddy but had to try to speak with the former president. Clinton elicits another chuckle from the audience, “So I think to myself that this guy is either a journalist or a terrorist.”

It turns out, Clinton says, that the man is a firefighter from New York City. He tells the president that he needed to relay his thanks for Hillary’s work after 9/11 since she was the only official to recognize that the air would harm the recovery workers after the towers collapsed. The firefighter admits that he has the best health insurance available – that is not his issue. He watched his comrades die during 9/11 and as a result of the air afterward. Clinton says that the two of them are standing alone on the green, tears streaming from their eyes, as the firefighter tells the president that he just had to come personally to say his thank you.

At this point in Clinton’s speech, the Iowa audience is hanging on his every word. It is absolutely quiet in the hall. Clinton concludes by saying that when people asked him, who for nearly 40 years best knew Hillary, to tell why she is the best candidate, he did not know how to best put it into words until he met that firefighter a year ago. He tells of Hillary’s compassion, intelligence and common sense especially demonstrated in being the first to recognize and act on assistance for the recovery workers.

After the Burlington speech, Clinton staff documented while going door-to-door, that nearly five percent of caucus goers they contacted enthusiastically admitted that they changed their minds to support Hillary after hearing the former president speak. Although icy conditions kept many of her older supporters away from their caucus precincts, it was evident that she had great support despite a one percent deficit from second place. Do not underestimate how profound of an asset her husband can be for her in tomorrow’s Nevada caucus and next week’s South Carolina primary. The Democratic nomination may just be decided by who has an articulate former president in their campaign camp.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.