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Democrats embrace the personal as well as the political to woo Iowa voters

Democrats embrace the personal as well as the political to woo Iowa voters
Cornel West, right, greets supporters with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a debate party last weekend in Des Moines. West has also spoken on Sanders' behalf at college rallies. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

While Democrats in eastern Iowa’s Dubuque County dined on three kinds of chili at their “Soup-er Tuesday”-themed meeting last week, Hillary Clinton’s paid field agents were in the kitchen scrubbing dishes.

The campaign machine that foundered in the 2008 race against Barack Obama has spent seven months mastering the grunt work needed to ingratiate itself to Iowans. It has sat down for coffee with 6,000 Iowa party activists. It makes sure every voter who shows interest gets a personalized, handwritten note. It organizes group yoga.

"They came in and they made friends and they recruited," said Walt Pregler, the 81-year-old Dubuque County Democratic chairman. "And instead of trying to do it all over the telephone, they did it person-to-person, and door-to-door."

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Clinton's rivals are hopeful that this all-important state that holds the first nominating contest in the 2016 Democratic primary will do what it often has in the past: deliver an upset victory to an insurgent. But the Clinton operation is stubbornly holding the line, according to interviews with dozens of strategists, county chairs and rank-and-file Democrats from across Iowa.

Its durability will be tested over the next two months in this quirky caucus state, where even the best-laid plans can fall apart on caucus night, in part because it takes hours to participate and turnout varies wildly every four years.

Clinton's main threat, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is seeking to use Iowa's system to his advantage much the way Obama did, by inspiring masses of voters who would not usually caucus.

"If they choose to engage, they can make a difference," said Tom Henderson, chair of the Polk County Democrats in Des Moines, home to about a sixth of the state's registered Democrats.

Clinton, for all her organizational strength, has yet to sew up Iowa. Other wild cards, like the surprisingly robust operation of dark horse candidate Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, could complicate Clinton's efforts to send an early signal in the Democratic primaries that she is unstoppable. There is also lack of passion among many who favor her.

"We probably will go with Hillary, although that would not be our choice if we could find someone else we could support," said Jo Anne Pinkerton, a retiree who was shopping at an antique store with her husband in Newton, 30 miles east of Des Moines.

Yet Clinton is showing surprising resilience even in ultra-liberal pockets here where Sanders would seem to have an advantage.

At Grinnell College, Sanders surrogate Cornel West, a scholar and civil rights activist, captivated a large crowd Saturday with what can only be described as an unorthodox campaign speech that took aim at white supremacy, "milquetoast" neoliberalism and capitalist theory. Like a postmodern jazz orator, he combined academic jargon like "counter-hegemonic" and "dialectical interplay" with references to the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, leading into a climax that dubbed the Sanders campaign "a love train."

Even as they nodded and clapped along with West, students and faculty at the event said the campus, which Clinton visited earlier in the month, is evenly divided between her and Sanders.

A day later, at Simpson College, Sanders enthralled an audience packed into a small theater with a lecture that bounced from incarceration rates to political corruption to the virtues of free tuition. But his rustiness with retail politics crept in when he confused the name of the school with another one he had visited a day earlier.

Clinton does not always excite crowds, but she never forgets where she is.

The day after the second Democratic debate in Des Moines last weekend, Clinton spoke for half an hour to Democratic activists at a dirt-floor agricultural center in Ames. Though the speech was held at Iowa State University, many of those who paid $25 to eat pulled-pork sandwiches, or $10 for bleacher seats, were senior citizens.

Before speaking, Clinton and her husband, Bill, met backstage with 13 local activists, including Jan Bauer, who has led the Story County Democrats for two decades. Bauer was part of Obama's army in 2008, a decision she reached after three or four personal calls from then-Sen. Obama. This time it was Clinton supporters who reached her early and often, including a personal call Clinton made to Bauer shortly after her April entry into the race.

"Madam Secretary, really?" she recalled saying to Clinton. "This is an amazing surprise."

Bauer signed on. And when Clinton rose to speak in Ames, she recognized Bauer from the dais.

But Clinton, who has been surrounded by the Secret Service since the 1990s, does not meet one-on-one with as many Iowans as typical presidential candidates. O'Malley, who is polling in the low single digits and faces the steepest odds to win the nomination, has sought to take advantage of that opening by paying relentless attention to local officials. He celebrated the Jasper County Democratic chair's 24th birthday with a special event announcing his endorsement. And Henderson, the powerful chair of the Polk County Democrats, signed on with O'Malley this month.

Henderson said he's met with O'Malley at least 10 times, including three dinners and a breakfast. Many of O'Malley's supporters acknowledge they do not expect him to become president, but they want to see him get more attention.

This election is a do-over for the Clinton campaign, with a team that has dissected mistakes from eight years ago and is steadfast in correcting them. In the meetings with the 6,000 activists in the state — from party chairs on down — the campaign has taken their advice on policy, organizing and rhetoric, giving the Iowans a sense of ownership in Clinton's campaign.

"If they were willing to sit down and talk with us, we talked," said Kane Miller, the campaign's organizing director in Polk County.

Most of what Miller's troop of volunteers is doing, meanwhile, is penmanship. Every potential Clinton voter reached by the campaign gets a handwritten note from a neighbor, nudging them to fill out a "commit to caucus" card. To make sure voters return their cards, the campaign sends volunteers to pick them up at the homes of voters.

"There's no shortcuts in the Iowa caucus," said Miller. "You can't just come in late and throw a lot of hot sauce and hope it works."

The Sanders campaign says it will get there soon enough. It has 72 paid staffers in 17 offices throughout the state, including a sprawling headquarters — with a giant Sanders head painted on the map of Iowa inside — beside a supermarket in a Des Moines strip mall. They say they have a list of 4,000 Iowans who have volunteered at least once for them.

"We think we're on pace," said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Sanders, who recalled his experience working for the eventual Democratic nominee in 2004. "I worked for John Kerry. We were sixth. … That was our horse-race number in Iowa at this time."

Devine said Sanders is already polling strong in Iowa despite his campaign being months behind Clinton in airing television commercials there and having a fully operational campaign.

"We're building a base of support which can be a base of victory," he said.

Follow @evanhalper and @noahbierman

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