Clinton, McCain Backed by 'Des Moines Register'

Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Hillary Clinton received some good news over the weekend in Iowa. With less than three weeks to go before the primary caucuses there, each was endorsed by the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register.

The backing of the paper is the best news in weeks for Clinton, as she battles for Iowa's delegates with Democratic rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards.

For McCain, the endorsement comes despite the fact that he is running well back in the Republican field in Iowa and has put little effort into the state.

McCain — once seen as a front-runner for his party's presidential nomination — has had an unexpectedly difficult year. He has been short on money and long on controversy, with a campaign that has tried to focus on his leadership abilities and his willingness to take on vested interests in Washington.

He continues to lag in the polls nationally and in early voting states. In Iowa, McCain draws support in the single digits and is running in fifth place. But he has been getting a lot of support from editorial boards, such as the endorsement from the Register.

Bypassing new front-runner Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in Iowa, the newspaper said McCain could rebuild trust at home and abroad.

But the endorsement defies conventional wisdom. McCain has spent relatively little time and money in Iowa. Also, he is known to oppose something near to many in the farming state — federal subsidies for ethanol production.

McCain's good fortune over the weekend extended beyond Iowa. He also won backing Sunday from The Boston Globe, which is widely read in New Hampshire — which will have the nation's first primary Jan. 8. He also got an endorsement from the Manchester Union Leader, the Granite State's largest paper. It is a golden moment for McCain to revive his fortunes.

The endorsement from the Register was also welcome news for Clinton.

"I am very grateful that they zeroed in on the work that needs to be done by the next president, by my vision for the country, my plans for change and my ability to lead," she said.

Obama, also campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, found a few things to like in the Des Moines Register's editorial. Even though he did not get the paper's nod, Obama's press secretary sent reporters an e-mail noting that the Register described the Illinois senator as "smart."

Early Endorsements Not a Sure Sign of Success

Does the name Sam Yorty sound familiar?

The longtime mayor of Los Angeles ran for president in 1972 as a conservative Democrat and received the endorsement of the largest New Hampshire newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Not that it helped Yorty's campaign much: He finished far behind fellow Democrats Ed Muskie and George McGovern in the primary, with just six percent of the vote. Which raises the question: Do endorsements from newspapers in the early states really matter?

The 2008 presidential hopefuls have recently touted their primary and caucus endorsements. Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) received the support of The Des Moines Register, while The Boston Globe has endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain (AZ).

Here, a look at some past endorsements — and how the votes panned out:

The Des Moines Register didn't start endorsing presidential candidates until 1988, but their first endorsement bolstered the numbers of Democratic candidate Paul Simon, then a senator from Illinois. Simon finished a close second in the Iowa caucuses to Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri. The party nomination ultimately went to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who finished third in the caucuses.

In 1992, the Manchester Union Leader endorsed conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan over incumbent President George Bush. Buchanan lost the primary, but received a larger percentage of the vote than expected. Bush went on to lose the general election to Bill Clinton.

In 2000, The Des Moines Register endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley (NJ) over Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic caucuses. The newspaper called Bradley's vision "compelling," with a "fundamental decency about him that would bode well for healing the festering partisan wounds." Between Gore and Bradley, the paper said, Bradley "has the better appreciation of the possibilities and the right kind of leadership to realize them." Gore trounced Bradley in the Iowa caucuses, 63 percent to 35 percent, and eventually won the party nomination.

Also in 2000, The Des Moines Register endorsed Republican George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, who went on to win both the nomination and the presidency. The paper called Bush a governor who "cultivates an open style of leadership, welcoming different points of view" and a politician who "speaks with conviction of not wanting to leave anyone behind in America."

In 2004, The Des Moines Register endorsed Democrat John Edwards, then a senator from North Carolina. The newspaper wrote that it originally dismissed Edwards because of his limited experience in public office, but changed its position given his eloquence in speaking about the needs of ordinary Americans. Edwards went on to win 32 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucus, second only to Sen. John Kerry's 38 percent — whose ticket he later joined as the candidate for vice president. They lost to President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

This month, The Des Moines Register endorsed Sen. John McCain (AZ) for the Republican nomination. It seems the editorial board's feelings toward McCain have warmed considerably since 2000, when it decried McCain's "tendency to petulance when the cameras are off, and a lone-wolf style of action that has left him without the support of colleagues who should be his biggest admirers."

Caucus Calculus: A Guide to Iowa

We keep hearing how important the "Iowa caucuses" are in determining both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. But do we really know what a caucus is? And why Iowa?

I visited the Iowa Historical Society building in Des Moines this month with NPR Video Producer John Poole. We toured its caucus exhibit and came back with a video narration on both the history of Iowa and what takes place in a caucus. (Watch the results at left.)

Caucuses are like a neighborhood party that last for hours. In Iowa, they begin at 7 p.m. (Central) sharp. They take place in a church or a gymnasium or a school or in someone's living room. You're there with your neighbors. You discuss issues, such as Iraq or ethanol or Social Security. And you also discuss candidates.

Unlike a primary — where your vote is private — in a caucus, you declare your support for a candidate in plain view of everyone around you. Candidate Smith's supporters go to this corner of the room, candidate Jones' that corner, and so on. If no candidate at a particular caucus site receives the support of 15 percent of the attendees, his or her supporters need to form a coalition with another candidate's supporters to reach the vaunted 15 percent threshold. Otherwise, the candidate ends up with no support at all.

It's a seemingly complicated process worthy of a rocket scientist. But the results and how they are interpreted are not complicated.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He writes the weekly Political Junkie column on npr.org.

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