Behind the Edwards Campaign: Native Iowan Tully Rob Tully grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and was a longtime adviser to Iowa political mogul Tom Harkin. Now the 52-year-old lawyer — who opened a private cigar club in response to a smoking ban in Des Moines — has been tapped by Democrat John Edwards to run his Iowa operation.
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Behind the Edwards Campaign: Native Iowan Tully

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Behind the Edwards Campaign: Native Iowan Tully

Behind the Edwards Campaign: Native Iowan Tully

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In his 2008 presidential campaign, Democrat John Edwards has an electoral strategy that consists of one word - Iowa. For months, Edwards has all but lived in the state, chatting it up with Iowans.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential candidate): You ask a question and when I'm answering the question, it's like a banter(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDWARDS: I love it. It's great. Welcome to Iowa.

SIEGEL: If Edwards is betting on Iowa, he's betting on Rob Tully, his campaign co-chairman, major fundraiser, and longtime promoter in the state.

As part of our series about people you should know in the campaigns, we sent NPR's David Greene to find Rob Tully.

DAVID GREENE: You can often find Rob Tully inside a private cigar club in Des Moines. He helped start the club because there's been talk of a local smoking ban, and Tully is a man who likes his stogies.

Mr. ROB TULLY (Co-chairman, Edwards Presidential Campaign): This is a Rocky Patel. Rocky Patel makes one of the best cigars. And the beauty of this, he's a good Democrat.

GREENE: So is Tully, of course. But before getting to any talk of politics, he's got to light up.

(Soundbite of cigar lighter)

GREENE: That's quite a device you got there. What is that thing?

Mr. TULLY: Yeah. To explain to it, this is, literally, for those people that cook, it looks like a torch used to make creme brulee with. But it's actually a torch. Makes it easier and quicker to light your cigars. Oh, boy. That's good stuff. So are you ready to light yours?

GREENE: I'm ready to light it up.

Tully looks relaxed in his khaki sandals and polo shirt. He sits me down on a leather couch and tells me he got into politics in the 1960s, back in the river town of Dubuque, Iowa, where his family ran a lumber company.

Mr. TULLY: My mom made me go out when I was 9 years old to sell candy door to door for the Democratic Party. And here I am in my little red wagon, pulling it.

GREENE: Pulling it well, apparently. He went on from top candy seller for the Dubuque Democrats to become state party chairman, as well the fundraiser and adviser to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin.

But in 2001, he turned his attention to John Edwards, whom he knew through the Trial Lawyers Association. Tully approached Edwards at a conference in Montreal.

Mr. TULLY: I said, if you ever think about running for president - because I told him, I said, I think you should - come talk to me and I'll tell you about Iowa.

GREENE: Edwards liked what he heard and made Tully his go-to guy when he ran in the caucus in 2004. Unlike a primary, the caucus has campaign workers going person to person to win votes. Tully remembers when he and a woman working for John Kerry had it out.

Mr. TULLY: And I'm talking to these people and she just butted in. And I got to tell you. We get pretty sharp with these, I say, hey, step back. You know, I'm talking to these people. You're going to have an opportunity to talk to them in a minute. That same lady brought her kid to my house for Halloween. She reminded me how rude I was and she says, I'm not sure I want my son to even take your candy. Oh, let him take the candy.

GREENE: Edwards finished a strong second that year but Kerry won. And now, four years later, Tully admits Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are looking strong.

Mr. TULLY: But John's numbers have never really changed. And that indicates to me, actually, a very good thing in that not a lot of the support has left. I mean, it's still there, very strong. And I don't think those people are going anywhere.

GREENE: But Tully wants to make sure. And he spent many days with Edwards crossing the state.

Mr. TULLY: It's kind of work, work, work. I'm in the vehicle with him and we're making phone calls.

GREENE: How does it work? You've got the list and you're literally calling people and sticking the cell phone in his mouth?

Mr. TULLY: Yup. That's exactly what I do. And, you know, and then I'll give him some background. Hey, John, this is so and so. Da-la-la-la-la. You know, I give him the background on who they are, where they are right now in terms of support for you, let's see if we can push them over today.

GREENE: How often have you sat someone down on this very leather couch and tried to win him over for Edwards?

Mr. TULLY: You know, the only one I've done is Bill Wimmer who was - Bill was with us the last time. I'm still working on him.

GREENE: I've talked so long, our cigars have gone out.

Mr. TULLY: Yeah. Let's relight these bad boys.

GREENE: After a few more puffs, Tully gives his main target a call on his cell phone. And pretty soon, in walks Bill Wimmer, fellow attorney, fellow cigar smoker. He says Tully convinced him to support Edwards in 2004, but...

Mr. BILL WIMMER (Lawyer): I think this time around, I think, Hillary is the candidate.

GREENE: Wimmer says he likes Clinton's experience in the Senate and as first lady and he thinks she has the money to run a national campaign. Wimmer says he'll host a reception for the Clinton campaign if they ask him to. Still, Wimmer says he knows Tully's not done with him.

So how does this guy work on you? What's his tactic?

Mr. WIMMER: Guilt. Yeah. He uses guilt. We've been friends forever and always. And I mean, that works pretty well. See, look at him right now. See? You could tell right now.

GREENE: How would you describe that face?

Mr. WIMMER: Plaintiff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TULLY: I'm still going to get him before it's over. It's still early.

GREENE: And who says smoky backrooms no longer have a place in politics?

David Greene, NPR News.

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