ANKNEY, Iowa – The much vaunted Iowa caucuses most resemble your local PTA meeting. Folks gather in a school cafeteria or gym and the person who puts up the least resistance gets nominated and elected to be the reluctant chair of the meeting.
Anyone who wants to speak on behalf of a presidential candidate is invited to get up and do it—though if you have too many speakers or go too long you run the risk of losing votes.
I was in Iowa tagging along behind a group of Tennessee legislators who went to campaign for former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. State Sen. Bill Kettron and state Sen. Jim Tracy from Middle Tennessee, state Rep. Jim Cobb from Hamilton County and state Rep. Frank Niceley from Knox/Jefferson counties barnstormed across southern Iowa the last week. The first three legislators flew to Omaha and rented cars. Niceley decided to drive a red pick-up truck across Iowa to hook up with the convoy. I went along. It was below zero every night. The daytime high would be 10 degrees. We drove through a blizzard between Peoria, Ill. and Iowa City. But I did get to hear farmer Niceley extol the beauty of miles of flat, frozen farmland and learned more than I ever wanted to know about phosphorus levels and the history of corn prices since World War I.
The convoy hit 11 county seats. These small Iowa towns resemble Lebanon or Pulaski in Middle Tennessee. The courthouse sits in the town square, surrounded by shops on four sides. The legislators would descend on the courthouse to work every office then fan out across the square talking to people, selling the message of Fred.
Everyone was there on their own nickel (or, in our case, $600 worth of diesel fuel) with David Mansouri, a regional coordinator for Thompson, acting as our Sherpa. The group worked its way to Des Moines by caucus night, then fanned out to attend a caucus in counties surrounding the city.
In the counties where the legislators campaigned, Fred was at least second or third. He was also second or third in the counties where they worked a caucus meeting. Thompson did not get a bump out of Iowa; the story of the night was Barack Obama first and Hillary Clinton third. But if Thompson had finished fourth or worse he would have been finished. His bus trip through Iowa the last two weeks, and the volunteers, made a difference. He and John McCain each got 13 percent of the vote. But since Thompson’s tally election night was 300-400 votes more than McCain, he was listed as third in the graphics and headlines the morning after. The Tennessee delegation felt their work in the 11 counties and on election night surely accounted for 300 to 400 votes, so they left Iowa with a good feeling.
At the Ankeny caucus, which seemed to fit the pattern across Iowa, a church group came in together, sat together, and voted for Huckabee in a bloc. The 150 preprinted ballots ran out quickly. The total vote was 271, boosted by the 121-member Huckabee group. Mitt Romney had one of his sons and a California congressman there to speak for him but could muster only 57 votes. Huckabee only got 13 percent of the non-evangelical vote across Iowa, but the church groups overwhelmed the rest of the field.
At a celebration that night, Thompson was obviously pleased with the effort and was energized by the response he had gotten during the bus trip. A supporter said Fred should appreciate his coming to Iowa and freeze his butt campaigning. Thompson laughed and suggested he get on down to South Carolina and thaw it out.
There will be a major push from Tennessee legislators and others to get to South Carolina in the coming weeks. Thompson’s back is still against the wall and he has to do well in South Carolina to offset not being in New Hampshire in force.
Thompson dodged a bullet in Iowa but he is going to need a lot of help to survive South Carolina and get to Super Tuesday. m
Frank Cagle is a political analyst. You can reach him at