On The Trail

See Howie Run

On the road with Dean in Iowa.

OTTUMWA, Iowa—”Running for President?” asks an ad at the Des Moines airport. “Health care better be your priority.” As far as I can tell, this ad is targeted at nine people. Unfortunately for whoever bought it, one of them is Howard Dean, and he landed Thursday in Cedar Rapids, missing the ad. But it’s OK. Dean has a health-care plan, and he’s about to get an individualized pitch from Iowan after Iowan about what he needs to do as president.

The Iowa caucuses are a triumph of two-way narrow-casting. The voters tell the candidates their concerns, and the candidates tell each voter what they’re going to do about those concerns. Dean warns about this in his stump speech: He says the biggest lie in politics is when candidates say they’re going to solve all your problems. But Dean can’t avoid it. The “Running for President?” message is repeated dozens of times during Dean’s 10 hours of campaigning Thursday. What are you going to do about VA hospitals? About the shortage of nurses or teachers like me? About jobs for me? About student loans for me? Me, me, me.

I’m supposed to love this display of “retail politics.” And perhaps I’m making it sound more selfish than it is. Still, I wonder what these displays of constituent service have to do with being president. Maybe the country would be better off if all Americans participated in presidential campaigns like those in Iowa. But most Americans know their president only as an image on TV.

For Dean, that’s unfortunate. Although obviously talented, he’s more likable in person than on TV, where he’s often reduced to bomb-throwing sound bites. On the trail, Dean is smiling and affable. But in his first televised media “availability” of the day, he puts on a dour face. As the press horde (more of a hordette) gathers round, Dean grimaces a little. The smile is gone. He blinks and flinches slightly as a microphone is thrust in his face. But the pain is short. The cameras turn away, and like a switch, his smile is back.

Dean’s crowds are big (for Iowa in July, at least—around 40 show up at one stop, and more than 70 at another) and enthusiastic. “He’s a Democrats’ Democrat,” crows one voter at the day’s last event in Ottumwa. There was “hardly anybody” when Gephardt came, she says. Unlike the others in the race, she adds, Dean hasn’t been corrupted by the Democratic establishment in Washington. She pauses, then whispers, “He probably doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.” But as we file out, I overhear another Iowan telling a companion, “I think I want to move to Vermont.”

Dean’s not quite the straight talker he purports to be. He has a habit of claiming he’s about to tell you something controversial—”I can see Karl Rove rubbing his hands as I say this,” or “I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s true, so I will”—then uncorking a line from his stump speech. But at one stop, he lives up to his reputation and does something endearing that he probably shouldn’t have.

In Iowa City, a supporter hustles Dean into a room and offers him a T-shirt, right after muttering, “Maybe you shouldn’t show this to the press.” Dean pulls up the shirt for a look, bursts out laughing, and promptly conceals the gift. “It probably isn’t politically correct,” he tells us. “Or it’s very politically correct.” But he relents after some prodding, though he stipulates that no pictures be taken. “HOMELAND SECURITY,” reads the message on the shirt, over a picture of armed Indians. Below the picture: “Fighting terrorism … since 1492.”

I laugh. Dean grins. “Isn’t that something? Very clever.”