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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 December 2007, 12:03 GMT
Iowa: the reality check for candidates
America's presidential race kicks off on Thursday with Democrat and Republican supporters in Iowa voting for their party's candidate.

The BBC's North America Editor Justin Webb explains why this sparsely populated, rural state is so crucial for White House contenders.


I am in the gift shop of an art gallery in Iowa's capital city, Des Moines. Why an art gallery, you may ask?

John Edwards in an Iowa diner
On the burger trail: diners are a key campaign stop for candidates

Iowa is a farming state but this is not the hard scrabble life of depression-era US farmers. Iowa is not a poor state.

Farmland has doubled in value in the last eight years and Iowan corn is being turned into the oil alternative ethanol as fast as it can be coaxed out of the ground.

Although Des Moines is not quite Dubai, it does have a wealthy feel - there are galleries, cappuccino bars and fancy restaurants.

Lost innocence

The staff in this art gallery shop have left the phone on speaker when a call comes in: "Hiya," a female voice says, "it's Michelle here, Barack Obama's wife. I'm just calling to say..."

With a practised, almost laconic deftness, an assistant reaches out her arm and ends the call, all the while serving a customer.

Iowans have lost their innocence, and lost it big time.

Michelle Obama
Jaded Iowans no longer believe that Michelle is calling them personally

A professor at a university in Des Moines tells me a story about a friend of his who came home late one night when the campaigns had only just begun and found a message from Barack Obama himself on the answer machine.

"Hi it's Barack Obama here - I got your number from a friend, and, well, I just wondered if there was any chance you might be able to help me out with this running for president thingy," the message ran.

The friend was thrilled and spent days day dreaming about the size of his White House office once the campaign was over and his part in it had been properly recognised.

Then the ghastly truth dawned - Mr Obama had left the same message for 200,000 other Iowans who drove a hybrid car, or owned a bicycle, or ate out twice a week or whatever it was that attracted them to the Obama camp.

Nowadays, the "robocalls" are universally resented here as an unreasonable intrusion.

It would not surprise me if, on Christmas Day, some campaigns had at least toyed with idea of calling on behalf of opposing candidates in order to foster festive ill-will.

Chit-chat

The point is that Iowa is not about mass politics. It is a celebration of the one-to-one relationship between an individual American and his or her putative commander-in-chief.

Almost two years ago I wrote a piece for this programme about meeting one of the Republican front runners, Mitt Romney, in Iowa.

Iowa

I was one of two reporters who sat down with him for a sandwich lunch. That could not happen now. I would have more chance of getting an informal off-the-record chat with the Pope than I would with Mitt.

Unless, that is, I were an Iowan.

Iowans have dozens, literally dozens, of opportunities each week to meet all the candidates and often to talk to them.

They are in diners, in hotel lobbies, in churches, in schools, in hospitals.

Iowa in campaign season is like a single British rural parliamentary constituency - think Ross, Skye and Lochaber - with everyone spending all their time campaigning there.

The result is dizzying. A great US political story has two voters chatting about their choices in one of the early voting states - Iowa or New Hampshire, I think.

One asks the other about whether he likes a particular candidate, "Oh I don't know," comes the reply, "I've only met him twice!"

Cutting the mustard

Occasionally, there are moves to de-throne Iowa or reduce its importance.

Why should our presidential election be so heavily influenced, other Americans sometimes ask, by 100,000 or so people who actually turn up to the Iowa caucuses, most of them white and most of them over 55?

The honest answer is that Iowa and New Hampshire, and the other handful of early votes, for all their unfairness, at least give the system a connection with local communities.

Mitt Romney
Iowans have almost unique access to candidates like Mitt Romney

However grand a presidential candidate, he or she has to come to Iowa and cut the mustard.

They have to talk about the intricacies of their Iraq policy with farmers.

These high achievers have to pause to hear about the health worries of depressed single mums waiting tables in dusty diners on the long, straight, empty roads of the Midwest - they have to talk face to face to the kinds of people you see in Edward Hopper paintings, people whose highest achievement is just getting by.

Hillary Clinton, the best-known of the hopefuls this year, made a classic error early on in the race.

She went to a diner and talked to the waitress but when she left, her tip was given by her staff to the manager to be handed out later.

Bad mistake. You could do that in New York but in Des Moines you hand the money to the server and you look them in the eye.

The waitress complained and Hillary got a black eye.

If she loses on Thursday - which she might well do - put it down to the curse of Iowa, on those who cannot connect.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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