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Presidential battle shapes up in Iowa

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

It's looking increasingly like Iowa will be a competitive and targeted state heading into next year's presidential election, despite a recent trend of favoring Democrats.

President Bush's handlers have announced an impressive team of campaign leaders that brings under the same tent leading moderates like former Gov. Robert D. Ray and veteran anti-abortion activist Marlys Popma.

For the moment, the campaign is housed in the basement of the Iowa Republican Party headquarters, but a handful of field staffers are already on the ground.

"We're beginning to ramp up," said Terry Nelson, Bush's political director. Top campaign officials are looking over a field of strategists to figure out who will eventually run the campaign, but they pledge a serious effort.

"Iowa will play an important role in this election," said campaign manager Ken Mehlman. The state fits neatly into Bush's strategy of targeting for special effort states that he narrowly lost four years ago.

Democrat Al Gore won Iowa's seven electoral votes in 2000, but only by about 4,000 votes. The outcome of the last election erased any doubt that every single electoral vote is worth chasing.

While Iowa has swung to the Democrat in presidential politics since 1984, the party has never established a dominant margin. In fact there are 581,582 registered Republicans in the state, compared to 527,404 registered Democrats.

Elections are traditionally settled by the much larger group of 687,962 who are registered without declaring a party preference.

Bush's strategists also picked veteran activist David Roederer to oversee the effort, and he has a solid record. Roederer was both chief of staff and campaign manager for former Gov. Terry Branstad and has a wealth of political experience.

Perhaps as importantly, he's never been closely associated with any particular wing of the GOP, viewed instead as a pragmatist willing to work with all sides. That's important because Republican candidates tend to suffer when either moderates or conservatives find themselves shut out. The party needs both wings to win, as do Democrats.

While Bush is vowing the make a competitive fight of it, Democrats certainly have assets in their camp as well. Unless Democrats nominate retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whoever the party picks will have spent months if not years stumping relentlessly in the state, meeting voters face to face in the sort of grassroots campaign Iowa voters expect and demand.

Not only that, but by the time the election rolls around the Democrats will have spent two years blanketing the state with television ads, most bashing Bush.

That sort of protracted softening up of an incumbent administration can be effective, witness Michael Dukakis' win in the state in 1988, though he failed elsewhere.

In a strange sense, Iowa voters who live with a campaign for a couple of years tend to take ownership of the candidates and build attachments that live on past the January caucuses. When a familiar face shows up on the November ballot, a lot of Iowa voters continue to feel the tie.

In all, the stars tend to favor a competitive race for the state's electoral votes, and that's good news for junkies who need their political fix.

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