No feel for Iowa

In a poll released Wednesday by The Washington Post/ABC News, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) holds a commanding 20-point lead nationally. But recent polls in Iowa have it ranging from a three-way dead heat to a seven-point lead for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

New Hampshire appears to be equally close, although those numbers could shift drastically the day after the Iowa caucuses. Obviously, some folks are paying a lot more attention than others. That makes Thursday night’s Des Moines Register Democratic debate even more important. And no one has more at stake than Sen. Clinton.

Clinton’s once-inevitable march to victory has become bogged down in the fields of Iowa, the end of the road for more than one front-runner in past decades. Not to suggest that it is all over. With former President Bill Clinton riding to the rescue, planeloads of ground troops and generals flying to Des Moines and huge sums of money being thrown at television stations, it is far too early to count the New York senator out. But all these reinforcements won’t make up for the fact that the candidate keeps sending Iowans the wrong messages. It’s not necessarily her policy statements that turn Iowans off — although many caucus-going activists still don’t think she has Iraq, Iran and America’s foreign policy in general figured out — it is that she doesn’t seem to “get” Iowa. She is reported to have complained after one trip that she “had no feel for the place.”

She began her campaign by making high-visibility appearances in major media markets, trusting media coverage to take her message to voters. Meanwhile, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) were working small groups in isolated pockets of the state, talking to people one on one. Excuse me, but doesn’t the term “retail politics” mean an­thing to the Clinton campaign?

The well-oiled Clinton machine really began to falter following the Philadelphia debate at the end of October. Hillary tripped herself up over an easy question about a New York plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. John Edwards, in prime trial-lawyer form, expressed surprise that she “said two different things in about two minutes.” The media, and the rest of the field, had been waiting for just such an opening. She was criticized as a flip-flopper, a prisoner to polls and a cynical politician. Suddenly everyone noticed Hillary’s mistakes. She forgot to tip a waitress, she planted questions at forums and it began to appear her Iran vote was as bad as the Iraq one.

The campaign’s response was heavy-handed, hollow and seemed to be the worst kind of political calculating. She was a female victim being ganged up on by a bunch of male bullies.

And besides, Barack Obama was a calculating politician who had been planning to run for president since kindergarten. Iowans don’t care much for negative campaigning and especially don’t like such personal attacks. Every kid in America is supposed to be able to grow up to be president and most people think it is cute when they write about it at a young age.
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a close observer of such details, pointed out with a piece of video that Hillary seemed to be reading the personal criticisms from index cards. As in, cards prepared by a staff member. And that may well be the major problem with Hillary’s Iowa campaign.

Clinton hired some of the best and the brightest in the Democratic Party to run this effort. According to many close to the campaign, too many of them have always viewed it as a coronation. “They’ve been picking out offices in the White House for months,” one insider recently told me. The Washington back channels are rife with stories of phone calls unreturned, ideas rejected out of hand and offers of help ignored. The closed shop is starting to get some unwelcome criticism in the press. The former president has been quoted in several articles as “coming off the walls” at the mistakes of the past few weeks. Words like “arrogant” and “backbiting” are making their way into mainstream stories. Reports of re-organization and “head rolling” are flying around, although one finds it hard to imagine a major shakeup just weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire.

Naturally, the campaign denies all this inner turmoil. But if Hillary finishes second — or worse — in Iowa, someone is going to take the fall. And someone should. Iowans have always made clear the kind of campaign they want. Either the candidate or her staff has not been listening. We may learn tonight if someone finally got the message.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com