Fineman: Stumping at the Steak Fry

Paul Tewes, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign manager in Iowa, is a tough dude with a preference for blunt replies. I asked him about the views of the Democratic voters who are most likely to show up next January for the presidential caucuses. In general, what do they want to do about Iraq? He had a two-word answer: "GET OUT."

That stark sentiment will be on display this weekend in Indianola, where Sen. Tom Harkin—himself an ardent foe of the war who is remaining neutral in the presidential race—holds his 30th annual steak fry in, appropriately enough, a hot-air-balloon landing field. The six top Democratic presidential contenders will be there, sending new messages aloft into the prevailing antiwar winds.

If you want to know where the Democratic Party is headed on the war, forget the national polls and think Iowa, where the always-important presidential caucuses loom larger than ever in 2008. It's a must-win for all the top-tier candidates. And if some of them weren't of the "GET OUT" persuasion before, they are running—or being yanked—in that direction now. "Actually, it's rapidly turning into `GET OUT YESTERDAY'," said Gordon Fischer, the Democrats' former party chairman there.

Nationally, Democrats overwhelmingly favor a quick and complete exit from Iraq. But the nature of Iowa, and of the caucuses, amplify the potential power of that message. There are precious few active-duty military installations in the state. The political pork in Iowa isn't military. It is literally … pork: farm subsidies. Iowans are brave and patriotic, of course, with high rates of enlistment (like other predominantly rural areas of the country), and there is very high involvement in Reserve and National Guard units. Those units are heavily deployed in the war. The result is a drumbeat of bad news in the weekly papers. "It seems like you're always hearing about the loss of some exemplary 22-year-old kid," said Fischer. What does not make the papers all the time—but what every town knows about—is the wear and tear of everyday life as families deal with the burdens of long tours of duty they never expected.

The Democrats' caucuses, we need to remind ourselves every four years, are a unique and intense form of political expression. Unlike the Republican caucuses, where they vote by secret ballot, the Democrats' version is a cross between a town-hall meeting and a high-school dance. Peer pressure matters. You show up at, say, a school classroom. You "vote" by rising to stand with the like-minded folks who support the same candidate you do. You want to catch the eye—or avoid the dagger glances—of people in other camps. The peer-group sentiment, of course, is going to be "GET OUT NOW." And if there aren't enough people supporting your candidate (it has to be at least 15 percent of the total), you can go stand with some other candidate—so second and third choices can matter. This time around, that less-than-15-percent vote could be especially fierce in opposition to the war (think of Rep. Dennis Kucinich). "That 'loose change' could be outcome—determinative," said Fischer.

No wonder the candidates are falling all over each other as they scramble to the "GET OUT" side of the argument. In Congress, Democratic leaders remain worried about being accused of advocating what one of them calls a "precipitous withdrawal." Among most Democrats in Iowa, however, "precipitous" may not be fast enough. To impress them, the candidates are beginning to take serious shots at each other—a trend that will only intensify between now and the caucuses in early January.

It reached a new level late this week, in and around President Bush's "return on success" speech, which wasn't about "victory"—he didn't use the word—but rather about avoiding chaos.  Before the speech, Sen. Barack Obama laid out a plan to withdraw all "combat" troops by 2009, at the rate of one brigade a month, without specifying precisely how many "noncombat" troops would be left behind and for what specific purpose. That brought attacks from Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Sen. Chris Dodd, both of whom were in Iowa. "Senator Obama has a gift for soaring rhetoric," said Dodd, "but, on this critical issue, we need to know the substance of his position with specificity." Both Richardson and Dodd favor a more rapid timetable for withdrawal than Obama thinks possible, and the governor wants "zero" troops of any kind left behind.

For his part, former senator John Edwards distinguished himself from the four Democratic candidates who are currently in the Senate—Obama, Dodd, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton—by calling on Congress to refuse to further fund the war without a firm timetable, and end date, for withdrawal of combat troops. "No timeline, no funding, no excuses," he said in a short speech broadcast on MSNBC immediately following Bush's speech. Biden, for one, was wary of tying the funding question to ending the war, arguing that the Democrats needed to be mindful of the safety—and need for armor and equipment—of the troops still in the field. "I can't bring myself to refuse to vote for funding," he said in a conference call with reporters.

In the Democratic caucuses, said Tewes, the aim is to "build your own universe," and then bring it to the caucus sites. But in building their own universe, do the Democrats need to be careful about the general election—even if not especially in Iowa, which Bush won in 2004? Yes, said Fischer. "There is a boulder in the road for the Democrats called `national security'," he said. "We have to be able to get around it. We can't look 'weak on defense.' I think we are going to be fine in Iowa—I think we are going to win it in 2008. It's trending that way. But we have to be careful."

In the balloon field this weekend, however, the Democrats are going to throw caution to the wind. It's getting close to caucus time.