Presidential Campaigns Battle Over Iowa

Al Gore won Iowa in 2000, narrowly. President Bush carried the state in 2004, narrowly. This year's presidential contest also looks close, both nationally and in Iowa. Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns are once again targeting the state.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is an unusual election year in many ways, and one is that the candidates still care about Iowa. It's so much more than just the first caucus state. Now, Iowa is a battleground state. It's one of just three states that changed allegiance from 2000 to 2004 when it backed President Bush. This time, Iowa could switch again because polls show Barack Obama with an edge over John McCain. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: A deep staff, vast volunteer network, and county-by-county campaigning by the candidate himself laid the foundation for Barack Obama's caucus victory.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Nominee): But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.

CORNISH: And Obama has had the edge in the polls here ever since, Democrats say, because Iowans have gotten to know him well. Meanwhile, John McCain skipped the 2000 caucuses and finished fourth in the GOP contest this year. Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross says McCain has never excited the base the way George W. Bush did.

Mr. DOUG GROSS (Republican Strategist, Iowa): Bush really did not try to play to the swing voters in Iowa. He tried to polarize both sides intensely and generate a larger turnout with his core base of support. I don't think you're going to see McCain do that to win Iowa.

CORNISH: Instead, Gross says, disaffected independents are the goal for McCain. The Republican nominee has dumped twice the amount of advertising money into the state as Obama. And last week, McCain hit up voter-rich eastern Iowa with his running mate.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Nominee): The future of America lies here. And I and my great running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, are going to compete, and we're going to win the state of Iowa, and we're going to win the presidency of the United States…

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is bulking up the organization that has kept it one step ahead in the state.

Unidentified Democratic Campaign Worker: Today, you'll have two types of voter that you're talking to at the doors. You'll have folks that are deemed as persuadable voters, people that we've already identified as undecided, or people that just haven't told us where they stand yet.

CORNISH: The volunteers in this weeknight canvassing training, most of them college students, are part of a sustained effort to draw thousands of new voters. In fact, there are now nearly a hundred thousand more Democrats than Republicans registered in the state. Chelsea Kammerer is one of Obama's state directors.

Ms. CHELSEA KAMMERER (Iowa State Director, Obama Campaign): We now have opened up around 40 offices across the state. And the great thing about our campaign this year is we have offices in rural areas where Democrats haven't normally played. And our philosophy is if you build it, they will come.

CORNISH: The "they" in the case of Iowa are socially conservative rural Democrats, suburban Republican-leaning women, and the third of the electorate currently registered as independent or no party. And a casual survey of such voters in Dallas County, a suburb of Des Moines, suggests that there is one issue both candidates need to tackle to win them over.

Ms. JULIE LANDIE(ph): Right now, the economy.

Mr. STEVE WAYMIER(ph): I'd say the economy and...

Mr. STEVE HENNIGAN(ph): The economy back on track. Don't bail out people that are rich.

CORNISH: The last voter you heard was Steve Hennigan of Grimes who says he's backing Barack Obama. But the voice before that was Steve Waymier, an independent leaning towards McCain.

Mr. WAYMIER: I think that his international experience is a little bit more than Barack's experience. And also on Barack's, I hear a lot about change, which everybody wants, but I really haven't heard anything besides just a phrase, we want change.

CORNISH: And that first voter was Julie Landie of Urbandale. She voted Republican in 2004, but this year she's not so sure.

Ms. LANDIE: And you know, I guess I'm not sold on McCain's pick for vice president. I'm not sure she has the experience that's needed.

CORNISH: But McCain campaign officials say they're catching up when it comes to organization, and the addition of Sarah Palin has given them an infusion of new volunteers and support. McCain's Midwest campaign director, Gentry Collins, says while states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are capturing most of the attention, Iowa's still one to watch.

Mr. GENTRY COLLINS (Midwest Campaign Director, McCain Campaign): Are seven electoral votes in Iowa important? You bet they are. They're important to the Obama campaign, they're important to the McCain campaign, and we intend to win them.

CORNISH: In the last two presidential elections, Iowa was decided by less than a percentage point, and this year could be equally as close. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Des Moines.

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