Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#39, June 14, 1999


by Marylaine Block

You will note that when George W. overcame his shyness and announced that he was indeed running for President, he did it in Iowa -- the same weekend that Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and John Kasich were also in Iowa, at the World Pork Expo. Alexander said, without a hint of irony, "It's beyond me why any serious candidate for president would come to Iowa at the time when the World Pork Expo is going on, be invited to a candidate forum at the time when agriculture's in trouble, and not come here."

While Elizabeth Dole was touting her 9 point program for agriculture, and even John Kasich, budget hawk, was allowing that severe drought called for emergency relief for farmers, Bush was squarely and unequivocally endorsing ethanol subsidies.

We Iowans tend to take this sort of thing for granted these days. We're used to shaking hands with presidential wannabes and having our babies kissed. We don't even think it's odd anymore when they stand around in fields with pigs in January, waiting to get their pictures taken so that people will understand how deeply they are concerned for the plight of the farmer. And of course we think it's a hoot to see Dan Rather consorting with pigs as well.

If the rest of you wonder why, though, the answer is simple: Jimmy Carter.

You see, in 1975, he was the longest of long shots for the Democratic nomination. Even then it took big money to run a campaign in 50 states, and he didn't have it. The guys that had the least money tended to put it all into campaigning in New Hampshire, where they could score an early political and psychological victory that would make it easier to raise money for the rest of the campaign.

Jimmy Carter was the first candidate to realize that the Iowa caucuses came a week before the New Hampshire primary AND that caucuses rewarded candidates who had lots of eager followers willing to attend them. Organizing them was cheap - it just involved a lot of retail politicking, enlisting local Iowa politicians, meeting people, and listening to their concerns.

Jimmy Carter got there first, worked the territory hardest, and surprised political reporters by winning twice as many delegates as his next closest rival. When you exceed journalists' expectations, they give you lots of valuable air time and increase your name recognition.

That's why the Iowa caucuses are now a standard trick for all presidential candidates, a proven, cheap way to get past the "Jimmy Who?" problem. It's why your foreseeable political future includes lots more candidates posing with the Tama County Pork Queen, eating corn and barbecued ribs, and admiring the cow made out of butter at the Iowa State Fair.

But this may be Iowa's last glory year. You see, politicians in California and several other delegate-rich states got tired of being afterthoughts because by the time their later-scheduled primaries took place, the candidate had already been chosen. They wanted the candidates to come to them seeking favors; they wanted the eventual president to owe them big.

So they moved their primaries forward to March. There is now barely six weeks between the caucuses in Iowa and the California primary. This means candidates can spend their time up to their knees in snow and pretending to know how to drive a tractor, or they can spend it at parties hosted by Steven Spielberg.

This is, as they say, a no-brainer.

We Iowans are enjoying it to the full while we can. It's been good for business -- campaign staffs and news media eat an awful lot of pizza -- and it's been good for our egos, since we've spent our first 136 years being ignored. It's also been good for a lot of giggles -- who'd have thought Elizabeth Dole had a farm policy?

But you know, we've been good for the political process, too. The only way to do politics in Iowa is to talk to us, one group at a time, and we're a down-to-earth lot. We don't much like pretension, and we insist that even good lines like "compassionate conservative" be backed up with policies and actions.

You may not know it yet, but you're gonna miss us.

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