Iowa -- President George W. Bush hasn't been in office for
much more than a month. But in Iowa -- home to the nation's
first presidential caucuses -- it's never too early to start
thinking about the next election.
That helps explain what U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North
Carolina was doing in downtown Des Moines on Saturday night.
In what Democratic activists describe as the first
"toe-dipping" of the 2004 presidential campaign, Edwards
delivered a half-hour speech at a Drake University Law School
dinner attended by about 400 people, including some of Iowa's
best-known attorneys and state Supreme Court justices.
Edwards' address was filled with populist rhetoric about
what lawyers and elected officials can do to help "ordinary
people" who he said are pitted "in a war" against big
corporations and special interests.
"I didn't go to Washington to go up there and schmooze and
go to cocktail parties and get along," Edwards said. "I went
up there to fight for the people I represent."
He made no mention of the 2004 presidential campaign -- but
that wasn't necessary, political observers said.
"He's sending a signal just in being here," said David
Yepsen, a Des Moines Register columnist who's covered Iowa
politics for the past 26 years. "I call this a 'deal-me-in'
visit. He's not sure he wants to play, but he wants to be at
Edwards, who has been a senator for only two years, has yet
to say publicly whether he's interested in running for
president -- and he continued to dance around the subject in
interviews Saturday. "That's not why I'm here," he insisted,
saying he could have delivered the same speech to lawyers and
law students anywhere in the nation.
Edwards was greeted Saturday afternoon by melting snow, a
handful of local reporters at his hotel and this front-page
headline in The Register: "Campaign 2004: Iowa visits begin."
"People are kind of excited to have him here and get the
opportunity to get to know him better," said Jeff Link, an
Iowa-based political consultant who managed then-Vice
President Al Gore's general election campaign in the state and
has done extensive work for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. "His visit
has certainly created a little stir in the political
Ever since making Gore's short list of vice presidential
running mates last summer, Edwards' name has been included in
virtually all the lists of potential 2004 contenders floated
in the media. This has befuddled some of his North Carolina
colleagues in Congress.
But with no clear Democratic front-runner for 2004, an
Edwards candidacy isn't far-fetched, Iowa activists said.
"I think our party will look for a new, fresh face, and
that's an obvious benefit for Senator Edwards," said Jerry
Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer and one of his party's most
influential activists. "If you were going to sit down and
design a candidate for Iowa, his pedigree really fits well."
Crawford cited a variety of reasons Edwards could be
appealing, including his parents' working-class background --
Edwards' father worked in a textile mill -- and his focus on
education and privacy-related issues in the Senate.
"He's attractive and articulate," Crawford said. "I think
he's a star."
Iowa traditionally holds its caucuses in late January or
early February, eight days before New Hampshire's
first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
While Edwards is making the first post-election visit to
Iowa, there are plenty of rumored pilgrimages from other
potential 2004 contenders.
U.S. Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of
Massachusetts had penciled in visits last month to Cedar
Rapids for a Democratic party fundraiser, but backed out. And
Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana has been talking to state party
activists about making an appearance in the state soon.
"Right now, Iowa Democrats are pretty much open to anyone
who might have an aura of a winner," said Dennis Goldford, a
political scientist at Drake University.
In a Register poll published in late January, Democrats
named more than 10 candidates they'd like to nominate in 2004.
Edwards didn't get enough mentions to be listed in the
Crawford said although the poll will be "completely
meaningless" by 2004, it does show how much work Edwards has
to do if he's serious about running. There's no evidence that
he's started actively raising money in the state or courting
local activists to help him with a bid.
This isn't Edwards' first trip to Iowa, though. In the week
before the November election, he was among a stream of
Democrats who came here to campaign on Gore's behalf. That
two-day trip included a luncheon with about three dozen party
activists and a speech to high-school students in Ames.
Contacts Edwards made with Iowa lawyers during his fall
visit led to his invitation to speak at Saturday night's
event. His frequent television appearances on political talk
shows convinced the law school dean that he would be a good
Edwards has been doing plenty of other things that
politicians with national ambitions do. On the way to Iowa on
Friday, he stopped in Chicago for visits with the city's mayor
and a whirlwind of radio and newspaper interviews.
If history is any guide, Edwards can't remain coy about his
intentions much longer. Successful candidates have
traditionally started showing up in Iowa very early.
Link said that Gore, a well-known incumbent vice president,
made three or four appearances apiece in 1997 and 1998 -- the
political equivalent of this year and next for the 2004 race.
If Edwards is serious about a presidential bid, activists
will expect to see him at least once more this year, Link
Although political campaigns are fought over the airwaves
in most parts of the country, Iowa voters still expect -- and
generally reward -- candidates who give them face time.
It's not unusual for candidates to spend more than 100 days
in the state in the final year before the caucuses. Some all
but move here for the final months.
"The key factor in whether you're viable here is whether
you're willing to spend the time and get out here and tell
people face-to-face why you want to be president of the United
States," Link said.
Even Edwards' detractors acknowledge that he excels in
town-hall style meetings, which are a staple of Iowa
campaigns. Each week in Washington, Edwards hosts such events
for visiting constituents that sometimes draw more than 100
By their nature, caucuses draw only the most diehard of
party activists. About 80,000 people determined the Democratic
winner in 2000. But securing their votes requires
time-consuming organizational efforts across the state's 99
"This is probably the single most intense organizational
activity in politics today," Crawford said.
On the Democratic side, there are numerous interest groups
to court, including teachers, government employees and other
labor organizations. Farm groups also have an important voice.
So do trial lawyers -- the one constituency where Edwards
has already made inroads. Roxanne Conlin, one of the state's
best-known lawyers and a former Democratic candidate for
governor, said Edwards is both well-known and well-respected
among the Iowa legal community.
Conlin, who has known Edwards for a decade and contributed
$1,000 to his 1998 Senate campaign, said that the last time
she talked to Edwards by phone, she playfully asked if he were
calling to announce his candidacy for president.
"He just laughed," she said.