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Iowa Ice Capades

Is Hillary coldly competent or warmly personable? And if her own campaign can’t figure it out, how can voters?

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Like their counterparts across Iowa, the Democrats of Woodbury County, which encompasses Sioux City, have come to expect a vast degree of obeisance from their party’s would-be nominees. They expect more than speeches, more than rallies, more than rote fund-raisers. They expect, in particular, that the candidates will appear before something called the Truman Club, an outfit run by local Democratic pols that hosts a series of intimate, private receptions with them as a prelude to the caucuses. And, indeed, in the past few months, every Democratic runner has turned up and kowtowed to the club. Every runner, that is, except Hillary Clinton—whose campaign twice promised that she would come, only to bail out later.

I heard this story on a frigid night recently in Sioux City from guy I knew in college named Dave Bernstein, who runs a steel company there. The Bernstein I remember wasn't exactly the student-council type, so I was surprised to learn that he’d signed on as a precinct captain for Barack Obama. But I was more startled to hear his take on where the race stood in his hometown. “Seems like it’s between us and Edwards here,” Bernstein said. “The Clinton campaign never really connected with the local leadership; they’re just not tapped in here. And the Truman Club thing? A major, major dis.”

Woodbury, to be sure, is just one of 99 counties in Iowa. And Lord knows it’s dangerous, especially when it comes to the Hawkeye State, whose mysteries are a cause of perpetual befuddlement to even the sharpest political minds, to make too much of a single anecdote. But what’s striking about the Truman Club story is that it reinforces a broader narrative: of a Clinton operation that badly misread and misplayed Iowa for months; of a top-heavy, Beltway-centric beast that never found its footing and that now confronts the possibility of a potentially devastating loss. And although that narrative would be rendered instantly inoperative if Clinton pulled off a win in Iowa—replaced with a triumphant tale of the Comeback Queen—the memories of what she had to do to get there might not be so easily erased.

The peril in which Clinton finds herself in Iowa owes much to an approach to the state that, until recently, can only be described as bipolar. It’s generally forgotten that, back in the spring, according to a leaked strategy memo, some of Clinton’s people were considering having her skip the caucuses altogether; and although Clinton shot the notion down, the ambivalence it reflected was real. Soon enough, however, that ambivalence was eclipsed by a palpable overconfidence. In September, Mark Penn, her chief strategist, counseled me to “watch the numbers coming out of Iowa—we’re getting stronger every day.” And, indeed, from then through mid-November, Clinton led in virtually every state poll, by as many as eleven points.

The mismanagement of expectations has been a problem for the Clinton team all year, starting with the chest-thumping claims that they would “raise more money than all the other candidates put together.” (Ahem.) And it happened again, if less flagrantly, with respect to Iowa. “In the beginning, we never thought we were going to win Iowa, we thought it would be Edwards,” a longtime Clinton adviser tells me. “But the polls went to everyone’s head, and suddenly winning Iowa became part of our so-called inevitability.”

But Clinton’s Iowa organization was troubled from the get-go. As Teresa Vilmain, the esteemed Iowa field operative installed to repair the situation over the summer, told the Times, “Here’s the bottom line: They had not worked this state.” More than that, they seemed to have no feel for it. Clinton’s events were big, bombastic, and focused on Iowa’s media markets. She eschewed the rural parts of the state and chafed at the intense—and intensely obsequious—retail politicking that Iowans notoriously demand.

The conventional explanation for Clinton’s maladroitness in Iowa revolves around the fact that her husband never took part in the caucuses. (In 1992, the presence of favorite son Senator Tom Harkin rendered Iowa meaningless; in 1996, Bill Clinton ran unopposed.) But Hillary was very much a stranger to New York when she ran for the Senate in 2000—and here she navigated an equally treacherous, bizarre, mystifying, and, in its way, provincial political landscape with considerable dexterity. She was humble and solicitous, diligent and deferential. Remember the “listening tour,” for heaven’s sake?

But the Clinton campaign did not believe, at first, that such a posture would serve her well in a presidential contest. “The argument was that her greatest perceived liability would be weakness—was she tough enough to be commander-in-chief?” recalled the Clinton adjutant. “So she had to come across as more authoritative. She had to be a dominating presence, ready from day one to be president.”


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