Dancing the Iowa two-step

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Marvin Smejkal has a problem.

The political season has started so early, he can’t find enough sound and lighting technicians for all the big political rallies his Cedar Rapids company is being hired to run.

It’s nine months until the Iowa caucuses, but Democrats aren’t waiting for the traditional rolling start of the campaign.

At this early stage, little-known presidential candidates are supposed to go quietly from one diner to another, repeating their names so small groups of locals might remember them.

They’re not supposed to need big, booming sound systems to shake packed auditoriums and massive outdoor rallies. But here Smejkal is on a Saturday afternoon in Marshalltown, cranking up the volume at a middle school gymnasium for a woman who needs no introduction, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Sunday, Smejkal’s staff needed a whole truckload of speakers to get Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois heard before thousands of people spread across a lawn for an Earth Day rally in Iowa City.

“The celebrity (factor) doesn’t hurt,” Smejkal figures. “But the people are wanting to be involved. This country is all fired up about what they don’t like about the current administration, so they’re involved.”

On the Democratic side, the 2008 presidential election calendar is moving at warp speed. Even seasoned Iowa political observers don’t know how to predict the accelerated timetable. It’s not supposed to reach a crescendo until the Iowa straw poll in August.

Now it’s a question of who will burn out first: high-riding front-runners, late-starting rivals or information-saturated caucus-goers?

Clinton and Obama aren’t the only ones drawing big crowds. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina spoke like a country preacher Friday night at a Polk County Democrats event that was packed like a church on Easter Sunday.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware shared the same pulpit. Along with Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, they’re trying to join the “rock stars” — Clinton, Obama and Edwards — who’ve been leading the early polls.

Richardson preaches patience, telling undecided caucus voters: “Keep your powder dry” and listen to the experience he brings to the table as a governor, former Cabinet member, U.N. ambassador and roving diplomat. He’s about to launch the first television ads in the Democratic race.

It seems early, but a slow, gradual rise to the top tier might not be an option in such an accelerated race to win the nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

For now, Democrats are swarming to the rallies, but they’re not necessarily picking sides.

“I have my mind open, but I want change,” said retired teacher Carol Kramer, of Newton.

On Saturday, she waded through the crowd inside Uncle Nancy’s Coffee House in Newton and had a place near the front to see Clinton’s quick speech. The room was jammed with boisterous college co-eds, decked-out members of the 50-plus women’s group The Red Hat Society, and smaller numbers of men.

“How do we reform government?” Clinton asked. “We start by getting rid of the Republicans in the White House.”

Kramer said she was impressed but still wants Clinton to apologize for supporting a war powers resolution in the run-up to the Iraq war. Plus, she is not done reading a book about Clinton, and she has met “only” four of the candidates.

Nobody pulls in a crowd like Obama, whose following among young, first-time voters draws frequent comparisons to slain 1968 contender Robert Kennedy.

On Sunday, University of Iowa students covered an area bigger than a football field. On Earth Day, they cheered his environmental initiatives. They roared when he talked about bringing universal health care. But they hushed when he talked about the Iraq war and how he had talked to the mothers of fallen soldiers.

“Each and every day they ask me, ‘What have these sacrifices been for?’ ” Obama said.

In an interview, Obama said even he marvels at the crowds he draws, wondering if they’ll shrink the fifth time he comes into a town.

“People are paying attention to this race in a way they haven’t in a long time,” he said, “because they’re craving a new way of doing business.”

Right now, it’s mostly style points, not issues, that separate the Democratic contenders. Going forward, all of them call for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq. They win applause calling for more diplomacy to restore the country’s image around the world. All cite a need for expanded or universal health care coverage, and they stress Iowa’s role in producing renewable energy such as ethanol.

Edwards, who built an Iowa following before the 2004 caucuses, has tried to distinguish himself by offering a new plan to help rural communities. And he jabs at rivals who have yet to offer specific plans on topics like health care.

“Rhetoric is easy and rhetoric is cheap,” he told crowds at the Polk County Democrats’ dinner at the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. “We need candidates who have the backbone” to offer specifics, he said.

Dodd, Richardson and Biden are trying to break through by citing the experience factor, and Kucinich puts a peace sign on his logo to separate his campaign.

Even those “second-tier” Democrats draw larger audiences than in past elections at this stage. The challenge is to gain traction — and fast — before they’re drowned out by the front-runners and their high-powered amps.

–M.E. SPRENGELMEYER

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)

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