During the presidential frenzy that descends upon this farmland state every four years, Mary Ann Corrigan has met Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- and way too many also-rans to name.
Now, blissfully minding her own business at the Machine Shed restaurant, the 72-year-old retired farmer is about to meet John H. Cox.
"I'm running for president of the United States," says Cox, a 51-year-old Republican, as he quickly explains how he would abolish the federal income tax, solve immigration problems and keep gas prices low. Corrigan has barely had a chance to sip her coffee when Cox, a Chicago attorney, accountant and investment manager, churns through his talking points.
Corrigan listens for a couple of minutes, intrigued but clearly confused. Eyeing Cox's dark-blue suit and silk suspenders dotted with miniature White Houses, she interrupts the candidate's sales pitch.
"Excuse me, but who are you again?" she asks. "And why are you bothering me now?"
Even by the standards of most Iowans, who are used to being bombarded with campaign rhetoric, Cox's stumping is considered a tad early. There are, after all, 760 days until Nov. 3, 2008.
But this presidential race offers a dream scenario for the political fringe and not-so-fringe because there is no incumbent running, no vice president with a claim on a party's nomination, and widespread voter discontent among Democrats and Republicans. Issues that have plagued both parties -- including illegal immigration, the Iraq war and ethics -- fuel the public's frustration and desire for change.
So it's an open field -- at least, that's what the candidates are telling themselves.
"This is the first time since 1928 that neither party has an heir apparent for their nomination," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This presidential race really started the day after the 2004 race ended. It's only going to get more intense" after the midterm election Nov. 7.
As of early September, 75 people had filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission declaring their intention to run for president. At the same time four years ago, 45 people had done so, an FEC official said.
"You start to see more of these long-shot candidates any time people feel the country's in bad shape, and they feel someone needs to do something about it," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "Clearly, people are upset right now."
Cox's campaign kicked into high gear soon after he filed paperwork in February with the FEC. He has spent months crisscrossing windblown prairies and lush farmland, hawking his ideology while serving plates of pancakes at county fairs and singing hymns at rural churches.
Cox has visited all of Iowa's 99 counties, driven across New Hampshire eight times, made five trips to South Carolina and toured the East Coast. A trip through the South is slated for later this month. He has signed up coordinators to spearhead his campaign in 12 states, including California, Oregon and Nevada.
On this swing through Iowa -- Cox's ninth to the state -- he and four staffers will travel nearly 600 miles in two days, making nine stops, and speaking to fewer than 500 people.
The field is getting more crowded each day. According to the Hotline, an online political newsletter, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has visited the Hawkeye State seven times since 2005. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney? Nine trips. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)? Ten.
Cox has bumped into other Republicans: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at a fundraising dinner in New Hampshire in March, and New York Gov. George E. Pataki at an Iowa farmhouse in August. He missed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee by six days on his most recent trip to South Carolina.
Cox also is traveling most of the same roads, and stopping at many of the same towns, as independent Joe "Average Joe" Schriner, an Ohio freelance writer and part-time handyman; Democrat Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska; and Dr. Mark I. Klein, a psychiatrist based in Oakland who describes himself as a GOP "grown-up for the White House."
Even Cox is a little bewildered by all the early action.
"Lock your doors and windows. There's going to be presidential candidates coming out of the woodwork," Cox says to Corrigan, as he hands her some glossy campaign literature.
Then he moves to the next booth at the Machine Shed, where the menu offers an 8-ounce cut of prime rib for "the light appetite" and children's portions are denoted by tiny pink pig faces. Shaking hands with a group of military veterans, Cox repeats his spiel.
Cox was born on Chicago's South Side to a single mother. He and his three siblings, he said, grew up in a politically aware family. His mother, Priscilla, a schoolteacher, walked picket lines in the 1960s and volunteered with the local teachers union.
For years, Cox was a Democrat and ran unsuccessfully to be a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. He had just received his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, double-majoring in political science and accounting. He earned his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1980.
By then, Cox had switched parties, drawn to Reagan's fiscal and social conservatism. His loyalty to the Republican Party grew over the years as did, he said, his wealth: In addition to his two-attorney law office, Cox runs or has a stake in several businesses in areas that include real estate management, investment strategies and accounting.
"[Reagan] and the GOP represented everything I believed in," said Cox, who has four daughters ages 19 months to 24 years. "But times changed. The party's changed."
The call to run for the White House came one night last winter, when he and his wife, Sarah, were watching the news in their condominium in Chicago's tony Gold Coast neighborhood. After listening to her husband rail at congressional candidates and President Bush, Sarah decided she'd had enough.
Why don't you stop talking to the TV, she said, and do something about it?
"I didn't expect him to take me seriously," said Sarah, 40. "Now, it's his dream to win."
Cox agreed: "You only fail if you never try. I'm dead-serious. I'm going to win."
He is, however, familiar with defeat. Cox lost a 2000 bid for Congress in Illinois. He came in third in the GOP primary for the 2002 U.S. Senate race; entered, but later dropped out of, the 2004 Senate race; and fell short in a bid for Cook County recorder of deeds in 2004.
Given Cox's losses, national and Illinois Republican Party officials roll their eyes at his bravado. Even Cox's friends and family have wondered whether he understands how odd such confidence sounds.
"Sure he could win. Anything's possible," said law firm partner Christopher Oakes. "Realistically, though, he's a long shot."
Don't tell that to his paid staff of eight, which includes Cox's national coordinator: Nathan Martin, 25, an Ohio-based National Guardsman and Iraq veteran. This year, Martin made a failed bid for Ohio's 4th congressional district seat.
Martin said he could make more money working for a better-known presidential or congressional candidate, and could probably gain similar experience. But he prefers to stay with Cox, he says, "because I believe in John's message. The 2008 race is shaping up to be a battle of the moderate Republicans, and I want people to know there's an alternative. I believe in the power of a grass-roots campaign."
In Iowa, Cox has spoken at seven county conventions and three district conventions, and at events held at the state GOP convention. He has tapped his own bank account to pay for television advertising on local cable channels in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has sprinkled thousands of dollars into the coffers of Hawkeye candidates, to help support and network with local Republican groups.
Cox won't say how much of his own money he plans to spend on the campaign. FEC filings show that as of July 15, his campaign had raised nearly $6,000 and had about $107,000 in operating expenditures. (According to personal disclosure statements Cox filed with the FEC in 2004, his net worth then was between $1.4 million and $9 million.)
Often, Cox speaks to crowds that are far smaller than those drawn by better-known -- and far better-funded -- potential contenders.
When U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a trip to Iowa last month, he was greeted at a steak fry in Indianola by dozens of TV camera crews and political operatives, and thousands of curious voters.
When Cox steps inside the Breadeaux Pizza shop in Winterset, home of the famous covered bridges of Madison County, there are 11 people waiting for him.
He personally greets each one. Then, he begins his pitch.
"Too many of the potential candidates in 2008 are senators, governors and other professional politicians who have supported greater spending and higher taxes to fix our problems," Cox tells the gathering. "I'm not a fringe candidate. I'm a Republican's Republican, a Reagan Republican. So what that I haven't been a governor? Or a congressman? Or a senator? Does that mean I can't be your president?"
Jo Jones, 78, giggles at the trim, gray-haired man standing before her.
It's 2:42 p.m. It's the fourth time since dawn that a voter has laughed at Cox.
Cox presses on.
"I had to scrape and claw and work my way to the success I enjoy in my life today. I understand the importance of economic security," he says. "I understand what it's like to worry about a family business having financial troubles, of worrying about not making a payroll or wondering how you'd survive."
Minutes pass. Cox vows to kill the federal personal income tax, and replace it with a national sales tax. He advocates moving away from reliance on overseas oil providers, and embraces greater drilling in the U.S. and use of alternative fuels.
The 11 people grow quiet and thoughtful. A few heads nod.
In the middle of Cox's speech, four other people walk into the restaurant. They had been shopping along the storefronts on the downtown square, where lush maple trees shade the Ben Franklin five-and-dime and Down Home Antiques. But the sound of Cox's voice and the ideas he's proposing draw them inside.
Cox suggests that businesses should be prevented from hiring illegal immigrants, and prosecuted if they do so. He wants to simplify the path to citizenship so that "it's easier for people to become Americans, to work and pay taxes and be part of the American dream." He believes that same-sex marriages shouldn't be legalized, he says, despite the fact that his half sister is a lesbian: "I'm for traditional families, not for being anti-gay."
"I like your message. I think you'll get plenty of support for your ideals," Jones tells Cox afterward. "You have my vote. But can you be taken seriously?"
Cox replies, "Do you think I'm serious?"
Jones nods and asks for a "Cox for President" lawn sign.
Cox walks outside. There is no campaign bus, only a rented silver Toyota SUV. He and his staff climb inside and head north, toward the highway. There's another group of potential voters: Twenty people, waiting inside a farmhouse, about 90 minutes away.