On the Road, Back to the Home State

As you read this, I’m headed across Nebraska, road bike in my car, not-so-ready for RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

I’m OK with the heat, humidity and fields of corn (and dreams, too, this year in Dyersville) because I grew up there. It’s the land of my journalistic and political roots.

And it’s a prime time to visit, because presidential candidates are swarming the state, trying to woo delegates to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

How did it come to this? Well, here’s a little history, my own and Iowa’s.Democrats started using presidential preference polls at their caucuses in 1972, but the event really grabbed attention in 1976. To date myself, that was also the first of two presidential caucuses I participated in. That spring I finished high school and moved on to Iowa State University, but not before going to my small town’s Democratic caucus with my parents. Collins was pretty Republican, so there were only a handful of folks there. I was pulling for Mo Udall.

That was the year “uncommitted” won the caucuses. No! Wait! “Uncommitted” got the largest share, but Jimmy Carter came in second, with almost 28 percent of the delegates. So there you are, almost 28 percent of party activists can make or break a candidate in this process.

In 1980, I took a more active role in the caucus system as a recent college graduate and, well, waitress. I showed up at my precinct caucus rooting for “uncommitted.” OK, Jerry Brown, actually, but you had to be careful who you revealed that to. I got elected to the county convention, where I ended up sitting next to a friend of my parents’ – and voting the opposite way on the party’s abortion platform.

On to the district and state convention with my band of merry “uncommitted” pals I went. The Jimmy Carter folks kept trying to woo us with their offers of a delegate to the national convention. And one of my college poli sci profs tried to woo the hot school teacher next to me with the line, “How do you like my telephoto lens?” We resisted on all fronts! Actually, we typically got ticked off when the platform debate didn’t go our way and retreated to the nearest bar.

That summer, I took up the cause of John Anderson, the former Republican who ran as an independent candidate. I was wearing my Anderson button at the restaurant when I waited on Sen. Charles Grassley (let me interject that I appreciate Grassley’s consistency on tax issues, but he annoyed the heck out of me when he ordered a hot beef sandwich in this rather swank-for-it’s time restaurant) and the Iowa queen bee of Dutch’s Dollies (aka, Ronald Reagan’s female supporters). Eventually the restaurant owner got on board and put an Anderson sign out front. Clearly, my track record didn’t involve winners.

That was the end of my Iowa political involvement. Oh, except for the letter to the editor in 1982 complaining about Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roxanne Conlin failing to pay any taxes because she qualified for so many loopholes.

By the 1984 caucuses, I was a reporter at a newspaper in Carroll, Iowa. I got to cover every Democratic candidate in the crowded race except Jesse Jackson. I had beers after work with an Alan Cranston worker who’d spent a freezing-cold January day in a pig lot trying to convince a farmer to go to the caucus and support the California senator. On caucus night, I watched the nuns and priests from the Catholic high school debate between supporting George McGovern and Jackson. Despite such debate, Iowans love their middle-ground and, on the whole, went for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee.

Here’s the deal about the Iowa caucuses, from my ancient perspective. You’ve got to be willing to stand up and say what you think in front of your neighbors, so the process isn’t for everyone. But Iowans take this responsibility seriously. They expect visits from candidates and the candidates’ workers, they ask lots of questions, they discuss among themselves.

It may not be the most representative system, but it’s been around for more than 30 years. And the candidates are, indeed, swarming the state, seeking support. It’s a good bet some of them show up along the RAGBRAI route.

For sure, Lance Armstrong is looking to have an influence on the race in terms of candidates’ commitments to cancer research and care. He’ll be on the ride raising money and promoting his cause.

As I attempt the bike ride I haven’t trained nearly enough for, I’ll stop here and there to gather snippets of news on the candidates and the people of Iowa who have first shot at the 2008 presidential selection. And I’ll  share them with you here on Colorado Confidential.