COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — The Iowa caucuses are 10 months away, but the hall where Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was to speak on a recent Friday afternoon here in Council Bluffs had standing room only – and this in a town considered a Republican stronghold.
"They're really putting it to us early, but there's turnout," says local resident O.D. McGee, who says he supported Mr. Edwards in 2004 but plans to hear all the candidates before he makes up his mind this time: "How else do you know if you don't listen to them all?"
Iowa has long celebrated its role as "first of the first" in the presidential nominating season – a status that gives Iowans an opportunity to mingle with all the candidates, peppering them with questions in close settings such as neighbors' living rooms and local coffee shops. This year's early arrival of the presidential flock may have some Iowans bemoaning a longer-than-ever campaign season, but many, like Mr. McGee, are gamely shouldering what they see as their civic duty of candidate sorting.
The field of hopefuls is big in '08, so Iowans may actually need the extra time to vet everyone. Moreover, come January, their caucus votes, are expected to hold even more sway over the nomination process than usual. With the presidential primary calendar becoming front-loaded with big states like California, candidates who don't perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire will have a harder time catching up to the early front-runners.
"If you don't do well in Iowa, it will be hard to sustain your campaign much farther. For almost every candidate, Iowa will be make or break," says Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "We're seeing a lot of activity from the candidates and a surprising amount of attention from potential caucus-goers.
Last week, for instance, when Edwards spoke on Iowa's east and west borders, the state also had visits from Democrats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Other weeks have seen similarly crowded fields from Republican hopefuls. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has visited the state 17 times since the last presidential election, according to the website IowaPolitics.com, and Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services has been here at least 14 times.
In many cases, the crowds – especially for events with bigger names like Senator Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and Senator Obama – have been much larger than Iowa is used to. Around 6,000 came to an Iowa State University stadium last month to hear Obama speak.
Still, to win, even the biggest stars are eventually going to have to appear in people's homes along with ballrooms and hotels, say most Iowa observers, if for nothing more than the PR value of showing they don't mind doing so.
"We're known for retail politics," explains Jean Hartwell, a member of the state's Democratic Central Committee attending the Edwards event. "You have to come and press the flesh."
Still, a few candidates are already finding less travel-heavy ways to expose themselves to caucus-goers. Mr. Romney has started a few television ads already – a surprisingly early move in a state where TV traditionally has less impact than word-of-mouth and personal appearances – and Edwards recently mailed 70,000 DVDs to Iowa homes that tout his universal healthcare plan.
With the popular former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack dropping out of the race, Edwards is also the first to try overtly to capitalize on his absence, announcing endorsements by more than 100 former Vilsack supporters.
Still, many Iowans say they're going to wait and get a look at all the candidates before making a call. And experts note that even the most well-run polls have little predictive power, especially in a state that relies on people to show up at a caucus location and devote a substantial amount of time to taking part.
"I see these polls – Giuliani is here and McCain is here and this is where Romney's at. To me, here in Iowa, they're generally useless," says Chuck Laudner, executive director for the Iowa State Republican Party. "People aren't making up their mind yet." Instead, he says, "they have in their pocket at any given time the list of questions they want to ask these candidates when they get their chance."
That was the case at Edwards's Council Falls event, where attendees peppered the former senator with questions about immigration, education, and the details of his healthcare plan.
"I just get a feeling he's down-to-earth," was the verdict of Tracy Hull, an independent who supported Edwards, but not John Kerry, in 2004, and says that so far, she likes Edwards and McCain.
Professor Squire says that while top-tier candidates may be drawing the biggest crowds, he's been impressed with how many Iowans are showing up this early to smaller appearances by lesser-known candidates, like Thompson or Dodd.
Last week in Des Moines, Senator Biden spoke to several dozen at a wine-and-cheese catered event at which the Senator aired his views on Iraq and answered thoughtful foreign-policy questions.
"We're good Iowa caucus-goers who need to look them all over," laughs Julia Gentleman, a former Republican state legislator who's now a Democrat, as she waits for Biden to speak.
David Hurd, standing next to her, agrees. "I'm of an open mind and trying to learn – to get a better sense of the individual and the character. There's a sense that this time around it really matters."
And with 10 months to go until the caucuses, some of the lesser-known candidates say a state like Iowa and its small-town campaigning offers the perfect opportunity for them to gain momentum.
"Right now, there's a gigantic disconnect between what's written in the national press and what's happening in the primary states," says Biden, after speaking in Des Moines. "The irony of all ironies is that the frontrunners are trying to push up more states' primaries. I hope that happens, because that means states like Iowa are even more important."