Why shoe-leather politics counts

After months of handshakes with candidates, Iowans vote today in

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In this era of scripted political speeches and poll-tested campaign themes, there's still something authentic about the presidential wrangling that occurs every four years in dot-on-the-map Iowa towns like Oskaloosa.

Now, as voters across the state travel tonight to gymnasiums and Grange halls to cast the first ballots of the 2000 presidential election, they're likely to bear in thought not only a candidate's TV ads and policy positions, but also how many times they actually got to shake his hand.

In the end, shoe leather and "retail politics" still matter in Iowa - this year more than ever. The Republican field, in fact, spent 612 days here collectively, more than any previous batch of GOP vote-seekers.

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It's a reminder that Iowans and New Hampshirites get the most unvarnished look at presidential contenders - and still serve as a magnifying glass for the rest of the US on the candidates' issues and character.

"We get a much better shot at getting a Iowa: America's magnifying glass on the candidates

real sense of the candidates," says Hugh Winebrenner, a caucus historian and professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "The rest of the nation only gets to see them in 30-second TV ads."

And so it was that George W. Bush, governor of Texas and the anointed one of the Republican establishment, found himself one evening last week in Oskaloosa's mini-mall, stationed near the Maid Rite hot-dog spot and glad-handing a throng of local residents.

Mr. Campbell meets Mr. Bush

John Campbell, a retired farmer and former state senator, stands quietly in the back of the crowd of about 500. Mr. Campbell had been a Steve Forbes supporter because of the publisher's "bold ideas." In fact, by total happenstance, he ran into Mr. Forbes three times this year - something that could happen only in Iowa.

But tonight he's checking out Governor Bush - and can barely make him out for all the crush of people and TV cameras. "I see his forehead," shouts his wife, Dianne, teetering on her tiptoes.

Mr. Campbell is intent on meeting Bush - not least because they have something in common: Bush went to high school with Campbell's son-in-law.

So Campbell worms his way through the tight crowd. He finally gets to Bush and mentions the bond. Bush cocks his head, smiles, and flops his arm around Campbell's shoulder. Bush leans so close that his forehead nearly touches Campbell's. Suddenly, they're having an eyeball-to-eyeball chat, just the two of them. The moment lasts about 10 seconds, and soon Bush is smiling to the next admirer. But Campbell has been charmed - and Bush has sealed another vote.

Of course, the trappings of modern political campaigns have changed even Iowa. Candidates no longer sleep in residents' living rooms or chat for hours in diners.

But to an amazing extent, folks here can still make personal connections with would-be presidents. One recent poll shows that about one-third of likely caucusgoers met a candidate personally or saw one at an event. And 26 percent said they had met their first choice for president.

This personal contact seems especially important in the wake of the Clinton scandals - as many residents here say they're eager to get an up-close sense of a candidate's character.

"I just like the way he looks people in the eye," Campbell says after his meeting with Bush, his gray hair shining in the mall's fluorescent lights.

By contrast, when Campbell saw Forbes, the two chatted awkwardly for a few seconds and then Forbes offered to autograph a book for Campbell. "He seemed more comfortable writing in the book than talking to me."

That honest, look-'em-in-the-eye approach is important in a world leader, Campbell says, because "a guy has to be able to connect and communicate with people. I wish it was just about ideas, but style matters, too."

Make it quick

While few average Americans will be in a position to speak with two candidates this year, Campbell's meetings - quick brushes, at best - are symbolic of changes in Iowa politicking.

Living-room or countertop conversations used to be the norm, but now a quick handshake and a smile often suffices. This is affecting how Iowans choose the winner.

"People see candidates as often as they used to, but there's not nearly as much dialogue," says Arthur Miller, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Because of the frenetic campaign pace, "candidates think that if they don't have at least 100 people to talk at, an event's not worth it." That precludes long chats with small groups.

In his polling, Dr. Miller has found changes in how people choose candidates - and that Campbell isn't alone in focusing on style.

"The lack of dialogue shifts the emphasis from real content and ideas to personality and the cues people get from candidates," he says.

But even as presidential politicking in Iowa changes, its role - and that of New Hampshire - remains secure. Early on, there was speculation that Bush - who's expected to win handily tonight - originally planned to gloss over Iowa. But in the end he couldn't.

And observers agree that Bush and Vice President Al Gore - who's also expected to win easily - have become more focused and more savvy through their personal contacts with the people from the heartland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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