Iowa ’04: A look into the camps of the top three candidates

By Meredith Meyer

DES MOINES -— Every four years, the capital of Iowa becomes the home of a nearly bacchanalian political festival. Within blocks of each other, the headquarters of the Dean, Edwards, and Kerry campaigns form a triangle of political energies, with abandoned buildings, activists, volunteers, and cars as billboards that brandish the name of one’s preferred candidate.

The Dean Camp: Decked in yellow sweatshirts with “Dean” emblazoned across the chest, volunteers flood out of the campaign headquarters. Inside, a mass of granola-y students congregate with frustrated baby-boomers wearing fluorescent orange beanies, with the hum of political revolution freely rolling off their tongues.

In a wood paneled room upstairs, Christy Setzer, the young spokeswoman for Dean’s campaign, The Perfect Storm, sits Indian-style on a folding chair, reeling with rhetoric. She’s not pushy, but her expression is insistent. One imagines her at a family reunion, convincing her Bush-supporting uncle why Dean is the future.

The five of us in the MAROON group are squeezed onto a brown plaid couch that looks as if it were recently abducted from a volunteer’s dorm room or plucked from the Tuesday trash of a Midwestern suburban development. Within sight, beyond the desks brimming with printouts, there is an office outfitted with a black futon bed for tired workers.

The air is overwhelmed with an almost perverse egalitarianism. Setzer speaks of a bus from Texas carrying 165 Dean volunteers, on which a 14-year-old girl sat next to a 64-year-old man. Joe Jensen, a bearded, pony-tailed, 50-something campaign filmmaker, speaks of the present Dean “revolution” with a gleam of 1960s insurrection in his tone, and proudly mentions the varied ages of the volunteers, as young campaign staff members brush past him.

Participating in what they believe to be the biggest get-out-the-vote campaign in Iowan history, their objective is to make the greatest number of personal contacts. Over four weekends, 3,500 volunteers and workers will hit an estimated 200,000 doors, about one-third of the state. To accomplish this, the Dean campaign has enlisted volunteers from all 50 states and several countries.

According to Setzer, a confluence of factors has caused people to care enough about this caucus to come from all ends of the country and world to help the Dean cause. “The candidates have become closer in the polls, so that people who otherwise wouldn’t have an impact on the election, since so much will be decided by the primaries, are energized,” Setzer says.

The volunteers have come here seeking a revolution. “We are changing the way politics is going to work. Dean is an honest straight shooter. People want grass-roots in charge, not corporations,” she continues. “We are creating a different kind of campaign, Internet-up rather than powerbase-down.”

This philosophy is demonstrated in the campaign’s fundraising strategy, the most successful of the democratic hopefuls. The Dean campaign gets smaller sums from many contributors. “If we get $100 from 2 million people, that’s great. That’s $200 million,” Setzer says.

Most of the volunteers coordinated their travel plans to Des Moines through the Internet, which mapped out arrangements for volunteers. Other delegations, meanwhile, including a group from Pennsylvania, Philly for Dean, organized themselves. Setzer says that they can always depend on stragglers off the street to come in looking to help.

Down the block at the Edwards camp: Next door to the New Blue Nude adult entertainment shop is the Edwards headquarters. Scrawled in a paint job reminiscent of a barbershop window is the message: “I still believe in America, the son of a mill worker can beat the son of a President.” However, the idealism on the window belies the professionalism of workers—as compared to Dean’s comparatively disorganized volunteers—inside the Edwards headquarters.

Compared to the flurry of the Dean campaign, the Edwards camp has the appearance of an official office. Edwards seems to have imported with him a traditional North Carolina rationale.

We are not invited past the entrance, or even to sit down. We are shepherded into a press corner, a playpen for unruly reporters. We are given a place in line, waiting to get a few moments with the spokesperson. Our attention is diverted by the camp’s welcoming agent, a 50-something woman from North Carolina, whose job title might very well be Gracious Hostess—she is referred to by her colleagues in the formal “Mrs.” She talks to us about Edwards as if she were his loving and supportive wife, boasting about his recent promotion. She focuses on his issues, pushing into any willing hands his booklet, “Real Solutions for America.”

The campaign spokesperson Carlos Monj comes to meet us, arms crossed. On the opposing side of the pillar, upon which he is leaning, there is a plastic basketball net. It hangs like an ironic hipster accessory that you might find in a bachelor pad, an artifact from one’s college days.

Monj returns again and again to the campaign’s youthful approach and college outreach. However, the staff betrays a different reality. Their desks are relatively organized, their voices quieter, and their hair thinner and grayer than in the Dean camp.

No one can quite say which universities are the most active Edwards supporters. Perhaps Notre Dame, Purdue, or Michigan. However, one only has to look out Edwards’s window and see the “Generation Dean,” stickers moving along the streets in crowds of students to know which candidate actually has student support.

Edwards’s issues are branded on the walls: “working families” and “teachers” are written reminders of his goals. “America works best when it works for all of us,” is painted in red, white, and blue on the back wall, complimenting the blue and white computer cords that hang from the ceiling. The office is absurdly color-coordinated.

This scene comes only a week after Edwards was endorsed by The Des Moines Register, an event that provided a significant pick-up in his campaign. “We are riding a huge wave of momentum,” Monj says. “Contributions were up five percent last week.”

To make the most of this development, the Edwards’s camp hopes to hit 150,000 doors by caucus night. They have recruited thousands of volunteers nationwide and hundreds of Iowans to make Edwards’s platform known and loved.

On the Western Front: The Kerry camp is a funny hybrid of a Montessori preschool and a Vietnam Veterans convention. In the county office, construction-paper cutouts color the walls, demarcating the campaign’s canvassing progress. And in a contrasting building, a former car dealership just down the block, the caucus headquarters is teeming with vets.

Campaign spokesperson Dag Vega is impatient, unprepared for reporters, caught without accurate numbers. He is concerned with not disrupting the flow of the office; cubicles separate an older staff from the younger volunteers. The workers are hidden behind temporary gray walls.

The secondary office, the county headquarters, has done little to disguise the building’s Costco-style character. The call center is situated in this warehouse; volunteers are juxtaposed with cement pails, 4 x 4s, and enormous garage doors. Stickers declaring, “I dated Dean but I married Kerry” litter steel walls, suggesting Dean supporters are enduring some sort of adolescent phase. Cyril Dadd, a campaign staffer and recent college graduate, admits that he too was a Dean supporter before he came over to the Kerry campaign.

It’s clear from the headquarters that Dadd is not the type of supporter Kerry is reaching out to. When Dadd tried to convey the importance of student support at Iowa universities, a passing volunteer asked, “Is this the Dean or the Kerry campaign you’re talking about?” The volunteers have made 20,000 phone calls this weekend alone, concentrating on increasing the level of trust in Kerry.

While the Kerry campaign may seem uninterested in students, its “veterans brigade” of more than 800 volunteers makes up the core of the campaign effort. The vets sit working below an American flag and handmade posters with this quote from Kerry: “I am not going to let the likes of Tom Delay question my patriotism which I fought and bled for in order to have the right to speak out.”