As Iowa's presidential caucuses near, the decision facing the state's Democrats seems to be narrowing to a fundamental choice, a variation on that most classic of political formulations: guns vs. butter.
In this instance, the choice is a question of emphasis and priorities as expressed by the leading contenders here for the presidential nomination: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- the most prominent critic of the war in Iraq -- and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has climbed ahead in the polls by stressing such kitchen-table concerns as jobs, health care and retirement security.
Both are addressing a variety of issues. And other White House hopefuls are still fiercely campaigning in Iowa, where the first meaningful votes of the Democratic nominating fight will be cast in just over 60 days.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts seems stronger here than many Beltway-bound analysts recognize, even after a difficult week of staff shakeups at his Washington headquarters. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina turned in a solid performance at Saturday night's big Democratic fund-raising dinner, holding his own against candidates with more money and considerably bigger campaign operations.
But the difference in tactics and tone between Gephardt and Dean, who sit atop Iowa polls, is what appears most significant in the race. By favoring one over the other, Iowa Democrats will take a first step toward selecting not just a candidate but also a whole strategy for replacing President Bush, choosing whether to mount an antiestablishment crusade or take a more conventional economic populist approach.
Dean, who rose from obscurity on the strength of his anti-war message, returned to that theme in a campaign mailer that reached Iowa Democrats just last week, as Gephardt pushed past Dean in a Des Moines Register opinion survey.
In the brochure, Gephardt is pictured standing alongside Bush in the Rose Garden after passage of the congressional bill authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Speaking Saturday night, Dean again criticized his Washington opponents who backed Bush's original war policy.
Still, his campaign chief, Joe Trippi, said it was too simple to pigeonhole Dean as simply an antiwar candidate. "We talk about considerably more issues than just Iraq," said Trippi, suggesting Dean's success "has much more to do with the message, 'Do you really think things are going to change dramatically with a status quo candidate?' "
Indeed, Dean spoke in far grander terms than the other five candidates on hand Saturday night, talking not just of winning the White House but also of energizing legions of apathetic Americans, empowering armies of young people, changing the country through the power of his candidacy. He ended by shouting, "You have the power" over and over until thousands took up the chant.
There is almost a messianic quality to Dean and his candidacy, a fervor that makes his effort sometimes seem less a political campaign than a social movement. Gephardt, like the voters he attracts, is more matter-of-fact.
When Dean, rumpled and passionate, appeared Saturday before a filled-to-the-rafters audience at a Des Moines high school, he mounted the stage to deafening cheers, a voice calling from on high, "You rule, Dr. Dean!" Pausing as the whoops washed over him, Dean replied, "You rule!" More whoops.
When Gephardt turned up Sunday morning at a library in Waukee, outside Des Moines, most of the heads in the room had gray hair. No one whooped when he walked in, wearing a plaid shirt and khaki paints, his corn-silk hair perfectly in place. The only sound was a polite, measured round of applause.
The Missouri congressman won the Iowa presidential caucuses the first time he ran for president in 1988, and he was widely considered the favorite here until Dean's emergence over the summer as the national front-runner.
Gephardt regained the lead in recent polls by pounding Dean for comments he made in the 1990s favoring cuts in the growth of Medicare spending, and by questioning his commitment to the tough-on-trade policies Dean has lately embraced. "I've been the leader on this for 20 years," Gephardt said Saturday, touting his credentials at a rural policy meeting in Des Moines.
To a large extent, it seems the two are not so much competing for voters as racing along separate tracks to accumulate as much support as they can from their respective audiences.
The latest Des Moines Register survey of those likely to attend the Jan. 19 caucuses found that two-thirds of Dean's supporters described themselves as liberal, compared with just 19% who called themselves conservative. By contrast, four in 10 Gephardt supporters said they were liberal, and 46% said they were conservative.
Overall, 54% of likely caucus participants identified themselves as moderates, 52% described themselves as liberals and 32% said they were conservative. Self-described doves outnumbered hawks, 19% to 11%. Respondents were allowed to chose more than one category.
Voters who support Dean, or at least are considering him, tend to see Gephardt as too familiar and too much a product of Washington. "Gephardt could be your cousin. You're comfortable with him," said Coni Samsel, a retired teacher from Mason City. Still, she leans toward Dean because she sees him "as a fresh face" who has a better chance of beating Bush.
Gephardt voters tend to see Dean as an upstart, a media creation even, who lacks stature and seems unconvincing as president. Dow Bates, a doctor who showed up at Gephardt's Sunday event, was put off by Dean's fiery performance Saturday night. His wife didn't like his discussion of fund-raising goals.
The exhortation -- "you've got the power" -- was "a nice cliche, but you've got to do something with the power," Bates said. "My wife said all he talked about was money. And I hope the campaign is about something more than raising money."
To Donald Kaniewski, a labor leader backing Gephardt, the war, which he opposes, is less important than issues like jobs and health care. "That's what my people care about," Kaniewski said, pulling his hands from the pockets of his parka to emphasize the point.
The big question, of course, is what motivates people to turn out for the caucuses, an exercise in town hall democracy that requires considerable time -- two hours or so -- and effort, like braving cold January temperatures, to participate. Will passion trump pocketbook issues?
Tom Harkin, Iowa's four-term Democratic senator, is among those wondering. He is neutral in the presidential contest, but he seems impressed by Dean and the commitment of his followers. "It's energy level. It's people willing to go the extra mile," said Harkin, who waged his own populist presidential campaign in 1992. "I see that. But he has to keep that up to catch up to Gephardt."