Lessons from Iowa

On a calm Friday morning, when much of Iowa still was sleeping off its caucus-night hangover, “Dr. Vote” hit the streets on an urgent mission.

John Olsen knew he didn’t have much time.

Besides his family minivan, among the few vehicles on the roads of downtown Des Moines were airport-bound taxicabs and rented moving vans.

Finally, the circus was leaving town.

The presidential campaign offices were being ripped apart. The top staffers were rushing to get to New Hampshire’s battlefield. So for Olsen, it was a race to get there before all the good political memorabilia got thrown out with the trash or picked over by other avid collectors like him.

Not surprisingly, he got the cold shoulder — and just one sad brochure — when he made an unannounced visit to the office park suite of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

The faces there still showed the pain of a stunning third-place showing Thursday night. So in less than a minute, Olsen was shown the door.

“And you wonder why? And you wonder why?” Olsen snarled as he stomped out to the parking lot. “Rude! Wonder why people didn’t vote for Hillary? They’re pushy. They’re rude.”

He got a similar brush-off at a few other offices of also-rans — including the storefront where Sen. Chris Dodd’s fans said they were still smarting from their “tough defeat”: a virtual shutout that drove him out of the White House chase before midnight.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, Olsen got warmer receptions at the headquarters of two caucus victors: Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Republican former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Before lunchtime, he was hauling some of the booty over to the State Historical Society of Iowa. There, sitting near a caucus-explanation exhibit featuring a cardboard cutout of himself, Olsen said it was easy to see why Obama won the first big test on the long, winding road to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“At Obama rallies, there was a lot of enthusiasm … (He was) very positive for the future, very inspirational,” said Olsen, who caucused for Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who has since dropped out of the race. “I had derided Obama for not being very specific. But in a campaign, if you get too specific, you’ll be called on it later and criticized. I guess in general, candidates shouldn’t be too specific.”

If anyone knows the candidates, it’s Olsen — one of the omnipresent “caucus critters” Scripps Howard News Service tracked during nearly 10 months on the ground covering the “back roads” to the White House.

Olsen was spotted dozens of times slipping into Democratic and Republican events — decked out in a different candidate’s gear every time — so he could ask each “next president of the United States” a question about autism before slipping outside to sell campaign buttons.

Huckabee, who yanked Olsen out of a crowd and onto the stage for an event two weeks ago, was “just so affable, just so down-to-earth,” Olsen said.

Olsen figures he got that charm by growing up in the same town where former President Bill Clinton was raised: Hope, Ark.

“What is it about the boys from Hope? You just want to like (Huckabee),” he said. “He’s a Baptist preacher. Early on, the home-schoolers backed him and that was a small contingent. But it went from there…”

Huckabee and Obama. Obama and Huckabee.

Besides being the talk of the nation Friday, those two wouldn’t seem to have too much in common.

Huckabee is a former governor, an unabashed social conservative, a plain-talking former Baptist preacher and the great hope of evangelical Christians.

Obama is a self-described “hope-monger,” a new breed of progressive, whose polysyllabic speaking style seems at times to carry the weight of the whole world.

One is white; the other is black.

One hangs out with action figure Chuck Norris. The other kicks around with talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey.

But for anyone who has seen these two men make dozens of appearances from one end of Iowa to the other, the similarities are more obvious.

“New” is written all over each man’s face.

At a moment in history when both Democrats and Republicans seem anxious for change, Obama and Huckabee contradict the political notion of “same-old, same-old.”

And in Iowa, that helped each man overcome factors that otherwise might have hampered them.

For starters, Obama is trying to become the first black president. Because Iowa’s caucuses are the traditional first test, that means his quest began in a state that’s 94 percent white.

Early in the campaign, some people at his rallies whispered their worries about him being done in by underground bigotry that wouldn’t be reflected in the polls. Meanwhile, some media outlets forced him into a distracting debate about whether — because of his middle-class, international upbringing — he was really “black enough” to connect with black voters.

So in the fight for the caucuses, he faced two issues. Not only did he not look like the typical Iowan, but also he didn’t talk like the typical Iowan either.

On the stump, he’d sometimes interrupt his scholarly oratory with some chat about everyday challenges facing average folks — like when, at an event in July, he lamented the cost of arugula at Whole Foods.

At an agricultural summit outside a cornfield in Adel, he admitted to the crowd: “In the neighborhoods where I live, the main livestock are squirrels.”

But somehow, he made a connection.

Beyond his high-minded, optimistic rhetoric, and beyond the fact that he was the only top Democratic contender who opposed the Iraq war before it began in 2003, he had something his rivals could not match: charisma.

He used that power to communicate, and he seized his party’s mantle as the agent for change.

Huckabee was a relative nobody when the race began. If folks knew him at all, it was as the fellow who had shed more than 100 pounds in the Arkansas governor’s mansion.

Among those who were well aware of him: critics from the pro-business, fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party, who railed against the deals he made with Democrats on tax increases to keep his state’s budget in line.

In the post-“read-my-lips” era, the stench of past tax hikes would seem to doom any Republican presidential wannabe.

Likewise, some critics thought his gubernatorial record was on the losing side of the immigration debate — which became one of the most dominant talking points for every GOP presidential contender in Iowa. Critics, including Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, blasted his support of in-state college tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants.

But on both issues, taxes and immigration, Huckabee found inoculation.

Early on, he became one of the most outspoken advocates for the so-called “fair tax” movement, which calls for scrapping the federal income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax. Even Republicans might be split on the feasibility and fairness of the plan, but it gave him a chance to raise his voice against the dreaded Internal Revenue Service and brought one of Iowa’s more active political movements to his aid.

Immigration remained a potential Achilles’ heel for much of the year, but after he adopted a tough nine-point plan written by the founder of The Minuteman Project group, he appeased at least enough critics to blunt the single-issue opposition.

That meant that on the stump, he could focus on his strength: his folksy humor, his kindly underdog personality and his frequent claim of being a conservative but “not angry about it.”

In the fall, while rivals like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were ripping into one another’s hearts, Huckabee took aim at voters’ funny bones.

Most famously, at a CNN/YouTube debate in late November, when a viewer submitted a gotcha question — “What would Jesus do?” — to get him to reconcile his “pro-life” and pro-death-penalty positions, Huckabee quipped: “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office.”

So beyond his appeal to the 40 percent of Iowa caucus goers who identify themselves as evangelical conservatives, beyond his populist appeals for bipartisanship when possible, he had something his rivals could not match: humor.

He used that power to communicate, and he seized his party’s mantle as the agent for change.

Make no mistake. The battle for Iowa was a nail-biter to the end.

There were times when both Huckabee and Obama looked like they might collapse under the weight of the movements they had created.

Obama gambled his nice-guy image in the closing weeks of the contest by taking his first direct jabs at both Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Huckabee gambled his nice-guy image in the closing days by launching — and then immediately retracting — a tough attack ad against Romney.

The retraction came at a bizarre press conference where, for the first time, the media gaggle was loudly laughing at Huckabee instead of laughing with him.

Huckabee was ridiculed from coast to coast for making the ad and announcing he had a change of heart about negative campaigning, but then showing it to reporters anyway.

Some national observers thought the moment would begin a spectacular crash and burn. But, by happenstance, it got surprisingly smaller attention in Iowa, where the press conference took place.

Why? Eric Woolson, the man who spearheaded Huckabee’s Iowa campaign, was still laughing about that on Friday, as he hunkered in his downtown Des Moines office and memorabilia collector Olsen was dragging a giant campaign sign out to his minivan.

“I said if the national press is laughing at us … if the national press is so cynical about this, average Iowans are gonna be fine,” Woolson said. “The other thing I had done that day is, I had scheduled all my one-on-one (interviews) with my Des Moines TV and big Iowa media. So all of their stories were about them talking to the governor, not about, ‘Look at what a disaster this news conference was in the eyes of the national media.’ It was, ‘Wow, I spoke to the governor and I asked him these questions…’ ”

Was that part of some mastermind media strategy.

“Luck,” Woolson admits, conjuring some of the boss’ humor. “Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.”

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com.)