Some Iowa activists worry that days of the living room campaign are over


There's something missing on the campaign trail lately: the intimate gatherings that have been the hallmark of presidential politicking in Iowa.

Interest in the early stages of the 2008 campaign has been so strong that voters are jamming meeting halls and standing in long lines to see the leading candidates.

Crammed into a gymnasium in Council Bluffs with 3,000 others to hear Democrat Barack Obama during a recent campaign swing, Dick Myers recalled the days when a few people would gather in a living room to chat and sip coffee with a presidential candidate.

"You can say it's good, you can say it's bad, but it's changing," said Myers, a motorcycle dealer and former Democratic state legislator.

A poll released April 12 by The Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 55 percent of voters are paying "very or fairly close" attention to the presidential race nine months before Iowa's lead-off caucuses. contrast, only 38 percent were paying close attention in early 2003 and 45 percent in early 1999.

Democrats have consistently paid greater attention to the 2008 race than Republicans by an average of 12 percentage points, according to the Pew poll.

One result has been a series of large events in which most voters never get to share their concerns, ask questions or even shake hands with the top tier candidates.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton routinely draws thousands of people to her town hall meetings, and in March she used 300 people as a backdrop for an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." When she joined former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack at his Mount Pleasant home for breakfast, activists had to be led into the house in shifts.

Recently, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards drew hundreds to events in eastern Iowa and more than 1,000 to a packed school gymnasium in Des Moines. As the candidate said "thank you" to end his appearance, campaign staffers strung a rope line around him to keep back the crowd. He shook hands and signed autographs, but some supporters weren't able to get through the crowd to greet him before he left.

Crowds have been smaller for Republican front-runners, but in April nine GOP candidates made pitches at an event attended by more than 1,000 activists.

"It's not like it used to be," said former Iowa Republican Chairman Michael Mahaffey, a Montezuma lawyer.

While mega events have been the rule thus far, candidates and party officials say they remain committed to the small gatherings that Iowans have long argued provide a special testing ground for presidential contenders.

"We'll start seeing smaller venues," said Republican National Committee member Steve Roberts. "At the front end, there were a lot of folks wanting to show their muscle by building big crowds."

Campaign strategists acknowledge that it has been difficult for high-profile candidates such as Clinton and Obama to conduct the retail politics that Iowa is known for, but they said the need for personal contacts remains.

"I'm trying to shrink my events," Clinton told nearly 500 people at an Iowa City hotel ballroom in early April. "It's hard to relate to people one-on-one when there are this many."

Tom Courtney, a Democratic legislator from Burlington, has spoken with Clinton about the need for smaller events.

"She had a very small event in Burlington, where people got to talk to her," said Courtney. "Almost all of those people ... told me that she's much more personable than they thought. I told her you've got to get out and do more of that."

Campaigns were competing earlier in the year for the biggest crowds, but will move to smaller gatherings, said Des Moines lawyer Rob Tully, an Edwards backer. He said living room events remain the best way to gain commitments from activists.

"We're not going to stop that at all," said Tully. "That really is the best way to get people to sign the cards."

Even now, smaller and less publicized events are being sprinkled between large gatherings.

Obama aides said he has hosted 30 smaller meetings in Iowa. And at the April GOP event in Des Moines, state Rep. Chris Rants noted that candidates also stopped in at intimate receptions that allowed for one-on-one discussions.

"People wanted to shake hands and talk with them at the sort of dessert receptions," said Rants, R-Sioux City.

Rants said Iowans are loath to give up the opportunity to meet with presidential contenders.

"People still have an expectation of going eyeball to eyeball with the candidates," he said.

Democratic strategist Ron Parker said each campaign cycle is a bit different, and this year the most obvious change is the size of events. But he said Iowans expect access to candidates, and the candidates will deliver.

"It's going to be hard for them to not go to the Midtown Cafe in Newton or the coffee shop on the square in Oskaloosa," Parker said. "I think it's premature to say that kind of campaign is over."

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