Is There a Risk to Skipping Iowa?

Wesley Clark '04 button

Clark bypassed Iowa in 2004 and took himself out of the campaign coverage. hide caption

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Claude Pepper button

The Florida senator was a 1948 presidential hopeful, backed by the left-wing of the Democratic Party. hide caption

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Ronald Reagan and Schweiker '76 button

When opposites attract. hide caption

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Arkansas Sen. John McClellan button

Thirty-five years ago today, Arkansas Sen. John McClellan (D) is forced into a primary runoff in his bid for a fifth term. hide caption

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It's a question that reappears every now and then: If you're running for president, do you risk not competing in the Iowa caucuses?

The subject recently resurfaced courtesy of a "leaked" Hillary Clinton internal memo written by her deputy campaign manager. It made the case that the ostensible Democratic front-runner should bypass the nation's first contest and focus on other states, notably New Hampshire and the super-duper states of Feb. 5. The reasoning is that with several states – including California, Florida and Texas – conducting "early voting," why not spend money and resources on them? (California, for example, will begin sending out absentee ballots as early as Jan. 7.) Why spend time in a state (Iowa) where Clinton is currently trailing both former Sen. John Edwards and Barack Obama?

The debate over the importance of Iowa has gone on for decades. Of course, lagging behind Edwards and Obama by several points eight months in advance of the caucuses is hardly a reason to risk the tut-tuts and the tsk-tsks that would greet a Clinton decision to skip the state. Doesn't she want to be president of all the people? Isn't a national frontrunner supposed to compete nationally? You know the drill.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton camp shot down the memo not long after it was leaked, and so the question is apparently moot, for now. For all we know, the leak was a deliberate tactic by the Clinton camp designed to send the message that despite what those mean Clinton staffers suggest, Hillary really loves Iowans and wouldn't dream of bypassing the state. (And heck, a decision to skip Iowa would not be good news for the "Tom Vilsack for Vice President" boomlet that is sweeping the Vilsack household.) But it's also a reminder that, in recent presidential cycles, anyway, some people question whether investing in Iowa is the right course.

That was the choice John McCain faced in 2000. The Republican Straight Talker got in the race after much of the Iowa political talent was already accounted for; in addition, he belittled the Ames straw poll of the summer of '99, refused to go along with the "I Love Ethanol" crowd, and had problems with the social conservatives who dominate Iowa GOP caucuses. Ultimately, McCain decided to cast his lot with New Hampshire – and its rich supply of independent voters. McCain walloped George W. Bush in the Granite State, the highlight of his campaign, but it didn't get him the nomination.

Four years later, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman tried the same tactic: bypassing Iowa in favor of New Hampshire. Whatever sense it may have made to them on paper – they didn't have the organization to be competitive in Iowa – their decision left them completely out of the coverage of the drama taking place in the caucuses. With John Kerry and John Edwards finishing ahead of erstwhile front-runners Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt at the wire, Clark and Lieberman were forgotten men by the time the campaign reached Manchester and Concord.

Of course, everybody skipped Iowa in 1992. Most of the Democrats stayed away because Sen. Tom Harkin – of Iowa – was running for president and not about to lose on his home turf. The Republicans didn't even bother holding caucuses that year. But take a look at the Iowa results of 1988: Both Bob Dole (R) and Dick Gephardt (D) won that year, and neither wound up as their party's nominee. Put another way, the two candidates who finished third in Iowa in their respective party caucuses – George H.W. Bush on the Republican side and Michael Dukakis on the Democratic side – wound up winning New Hampshire eight days later and going on to capturing the nominations.

One of the fellows who decided to skip Iowa in ' 88 was a guy named Al Gore. Say, I wonder what his plans are for 2008?

And speaking of early primary states, there is this question:

Q: How many Floridians have run for president? I count George Smathers, Reubin Askew and Bob Graham. Were there others? – Justin Cass, Ithaca, N.Y.

A: None that I can think of. There was an effort in 1947 to get Sen. Claude Pepper (D) to run. A left-winger, Pepper was a harsh critic of President Truman's foreign policy; even Henry Wallace was advocating the assault for Pepper (sorry). But Pepper never ran. Similarly, then-Gov. Claude Kirk (R) was alternately a favorite-son prez candidate and a VP hopeful in 1968; one of the advertising men he hired to increase his name recognition was a fellow named William Safire.

Of the Floridians you mentioned, Sen. Smathers, who died four months ago, was a favorite-son candidate in 1960 and '68. Askew, the former governor, made a White House bid in 1984; he also turned down an offer to be George McGovern's running mate in 1972. And Graham, then a senator but also a former governor, tried in 2004. All were Democrats.

Speaking of Smathers, John Clark of Tallahassee notes that "although he had given $10 million to the University of Florida, and their entire library system is named for him, the student government refused to pass a resolution honoring his memory after his death, since he had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act."

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: With the 2008 presidential nominees likely to be decided by Feb. 5 of next year, when some two dozen or so primaries take place on the same day, our May 9 column focused back to a time when national conventions really mattered. But some readers were left wanting more.

The aforementioned John Clark was hoping for a mention of the 1924 Democratic convention, which nominated John W. Davis after 103 ballots and 17 days of deliberations. John Lease of Madison, Wis. , thought the Republican convention of 1988 deserved a line for how George Bush came to pick Dan Quayle as his running mate. And James Crabtree of Pflugerville, Texas, says we had it backwards: It was Gerald Ford who wanted to be part of the 1980 GOP ticket, and it was Ronald Reagan who was against the "co-presidency" idea.

Per our review of the 1976 Republican convention, in which Reagan unsuccessfully tried to make headway against President Gerald Ford by naming his running mate in advance – in this case, Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA) – Bob Fratkin of Washington, D.C., writes, "You are the first person I know to describe Schweiker as a liberal. He was chosen, as I remember it, because he would uphold Reagan's positions if he died in office. Schweiker's positions were, at the least, Reaganesque."

I disagree completely. Aside from abortion, where he was strongly pro-life, Schweiker was a liberal Republican who espoused liberal positions to remain in office. And he had a 100 percent pro-labor voting record – no senator was more highly rated by the AFL-CIO – a fact that enraged many conservatives when Reagan picked him for VP. (Clarke Reed, the conservative head of the Mississippi GOP, was neutral in the Ford-Reagan contest until l'affaire Schweiker, which sent him to Ford.) The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Schweiker an 89 percent rating in 1975, 84 percent in '76. By contrast, the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action gave him an 8 percent rating in '75, 4 percent in '76.

And speaking of the '76 convention, Robert Podrebarac of Kansas City, Kansas, thought Ford won the nomination on the second ballot. Nope, it was the first. There were really only two candidates, Ford and Reagan, who were competing for the nomination. There was no one else who could force a multi-ballot tally. Ford won on a 1,187 to 1,070 vote.

Scott Schnipper of Brooklyn, N.Y., disagrees with our singling out the 1964 Democratic convention for the suspense over whether Bobby Kennedy would get the V.P. nod. "Heavens, I thought the biggest conflict and surprise at the Atlantic City convention was the fight over which delegation would represent Mississippi." Scott has a point. He refers to the credentials challenge brought by the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party against the all-white delegation of the regular Mississippi Dems. Fannie Lou Hamer gave a memorable speech before the credentials committee about fairness and justice.

As for the way we decide our nominees nowadays, many people – including Steven Harris of Worcester, Mass., – think it's nuts. Harris suggests holding 51 primaries, with three held on each Tuesday for 17 weeks, beginning in early March. "The order in which the states would hold their primaries would be determined by the voter turnout in the last presidential election. I find this a very fair way of determining 'who goes first.' It also rewards states that have very high voter turnouts, which tend to be the states more engaged in politics."

Harris looks at who voted in 2004 and thus has Minnesota (76 percent turnout in '04), Wisconsin (75 percent) and Maine (72 percent) leading off the primaries. The last primaries would be in South Carolina (52 percent), Texas (49 percent) and Hawaii (47 percent). Both New Hampshire (70 percent) and Iowa (69 percent) would hold their contests in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. But Robert Waltz of St. Paul, Minn., says the problem is that there are too many primaries. "Like you, I yearn for the days when political conventions meant something. The current system seems designed to produce very bad candidates – e.g., the Democrats in 2004 gave us John Kerry, who is as animated as petrified wood. The Republicans produce candidates whose greatest qualification seems to be the ability to hear pronouncements from on high, and never mind what the facts are."

Also having second thoughts is Michael Feldman of North Potomac, Md.: "When the Dems went to the primary system (as opposed to the smoke-filled rooms) for choosing candidates, I thought it was a great reform and I fully supported it. I think the tendency of the candidates to try to appeal to their base produces candidates who don't appeal to the 'center' of the country. This is particularly true of the Democrats in 2004. The 'bosses' would have come up with someone more appealing than a Massachusetts senator."

RATSO RIZZO: A few e-mails were critical of the comments in last week's column by John Gizzi in praise of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. Stephen Rockower of Bethesda, Md. , especially took issue: "Anyone who lived in Philadelphia in the 1960s and '70s, when Rizzo was police chief and personally strip-searched blacks in North Philly, often under the watchful eyes of cameras, knew that his attitude toward blacks was certainly not friendly. As mayor, he might have been forced to put blacks into some positions of responsibility, but he was certainly never in favor of doing anything other than 'keeping them in their places.'"

TICKET TO RIDE: Lots of fun memories came out of last week's column celebrating the famed "balanced tickets" of New York City mayoral campaigns. We talked about the GOP 1961 offering of Louie Lefkowitz, Paul Fino and Jack Gilhooley, as well as the Democratic pairing that year of Robert Wagner, Paul Screvane and Abe Beame, and the 1965 failed Dem primary ticket of Screvane, Orin Lehman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But there were plenty of others. An anonymous e-mail notes that Mayor Wagner's running mates in 1953 and '57 were Abe Stark (Jewish) for City Council president and Lawrence Gerosa (Italian) for comptroller. Mayor William O'Dwyer's ticket in 1945 and '49 had Vincent Impelliteri (later mayor) and Lazarus Joseph. And Mayor Fiorello La Guardia "was a one-man balanced ticket, being the Republican Episcopalian son of a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father, but even he had a balanced ticket that included Joseph McGoldrick as comptroller and Newbold Morris, presumably an old-line WASP, as City Council president."

But in my excitement about all these melting-pot tickets, I may have overstated Wagner's heritage. I said he was Irish. "Yes and no," writes Daniel Schlozman of Cambridge, Mass. "Although his mother was born Margaret McTague, his father, Sen. Robert F. Wagner Sr., was born in the Rhineland and emigrated to New York in 1886, at the age of 9." (Thanks also to Joshua Rokach of Silver Spring, Md. )

Here's a more clear-cut Rudin error: Last week's column incorrectly stated that 1999 was the first year a Kentucky governor could succeed himself. Not so, noted Nicholas Ohh of London, England. The Bluegrass State actually permitted its governors to do so in 1995, but that year Brereton Jones (D) declined to do so.

RICHARDSON POSTSCRIPT: In last week's column, we called Bill Richardson's mock job-interview commercial the "funniest" of all the presidential ads we've seen thus far. We still feel that way. Richardson apparently is continuing his comedy tour, though perhaps not intentionally. A guest last week on NBC's Meet the Press, Richardson told host Tim Russert that he was a fan of both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Now that's the funniest thing we've heard in quite some time.

WE'RE ON THE AIR: The "Political Junkie" segment can be heard on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Remember, if the online column leaves you craving more, then you should tune in to TOTN each Wednesday for your fix! And if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

Karen Dick of Lyman, Wyoming, a regular listener of the TOTN segment, is not familiar with all of the historical tape you hear in what has become the Junkie theme montage. "I'm in my late 20s and I guess a few of them are a little old, but the hardest one to guess at has been the bizarre cowboy yell at the end. It sounds like part of a hilarious story. Can you give the details on this and the other sound clips?"

Well, that "bizarre cowboy yell" is the famous (or infamous) Howard Dean shriek that came at the end of his speech the night of the Iowa caucuses, where he ended up in a surprisingly poor third place. Otherwise, it's President Reagan urging Soviet President Gorbachev to "tear down that [Berlin] wall;" President Kennedy coming to the wall and announcing in German that he, too, is a Berliner; Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle at their 1988 VP debate that Quayle is "no Jack Kennedy;" and President George W. Bush deciding that he is the decider.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly podcast. It's hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself, the only two people who have yet to pitch for the New York Yankees this year.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This Day in Campaign History: Arkansas Sen. John McClellan (D), seeking a fifth term, is forced into a Democratic runoff by Rep. David Pryor. In the four-candidate primary, McClellan gets 45 percent of the vote to Pryor's 41 percent (May 30, 1972). McClellan will win the runoff as well as the general election in November, but it will be his last victory; he dies in office on Nov. 28, 1977.

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