When we think of the first real test for presidential candidates, some of us think of the New Hampshire primary. That’s a biggie, no doubt about it, but I’d bet that the candidates spend far more time in Iowa preparing for the caucus there than just about anywhere else. Lucky Iowa!

In 2004, the Iowa caucus was in January, nearly ten months before the general election. That’s a broad launching pad for any candidate and a good opportunity to get some face time in the news.

Before any caucus, primary, or anything else, come the polls, which are carefully watched by the candidates and potential candidates. Iowa had a big presidential poll, and John Edwards led as the person Iowans would most like to see get the Democrat nomination. Trailing Edwards’ 30% was Hillary Clinton with 26%, then Kerry, Vilsack, Daschle and Feingold.

Some of those candidates are already quite familiar with Iowa, because it seems like they just left. This is why I feel bad for Iowans at times like these. See those top names on the poll? You’ll be seeing a lot of them in the coming months.

Iowa’s nickname of the “Hawkeye” state is thought to either have been first applied by a newspaper writer as a tribute to Chief Blackhawk, or some think it was taken from the name of the scout, Hawkeye, in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Those things have, for some reason, evolved into what the word has come to symbolize today – a bird of prey. The transformation of the meaning of the word must have started around the time politicians arrived for the first Iowa caucus.

Every four years, these “birds of prey” dot the Iowa landscape with plops roughly the size and consistency of – well, themselves. If you try to avoid the plops, you quickly learn that’s not possible – they splatter big time. There aren’t nearly enough back issues of the Des Moines Register to line the political birdcage into which the entire state is transformed as caucus time approaches.

In the months and indeed years before the 2004 election, the political visits weren’t even confined to politicians. Compounding the misery for Iowans in 2003 and 2004 were campaign visits from Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen. “Meathead,” as he is known to many, was campaigning for Howard Dean. So was Reiner.

These are just the kind of flap-jawed, ivory-towered know-betters that people move to Iowa to get away from, aren’t they? Tinsel-town pests with egos as big as the “Hollywood” sign – and IQs of as many letters – can be funny, but when they start following you around, it just gets plain irritating.

Despite the overall annoyance of the visiting presidential wannabes, if you can pay attention to them long enough without drooling your way through a blank stare like a lobotomized raccoon, you can learn something.

In the quest for Iowa in 2004, Wesley Clark taught us one of the reason’s he’s called “General” – because the title of “specific” certainly didn’t apply. Joe Lieberman somehow always ended up giving people reasons to vote for Bush. We learned that John Kerry’s hair loses perk and drops whenever his poll numbers do, and John Edwards taught us that, yes, we should sue over the accidental deployment of our passenger side airbag.

We also learned that Dick Gephardt may have done irreparable harm to Iowa’s dairy industry. Telling Iowans ad nauseum that his father was a milkman caused half the state to become lactose intolerant. The Missouri congressman also had some celebrity support. As you may recall, Michael Bolton showed up at a Gephardt rally, and his endorsement speech, surprisingly enough, wasn’t a remake of somebody else’s endorsement speech. There’s a first time for everything.

What will the next few months hold? Watch out, Iowa. Those at the top of that poll are going to be knocking on your door, and often. It looks like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton are the early frontrunners, so they’ll be in your town before you know it.

All I can say to Iowans is this: If you need a lawyer, you’ll be all set, but hide your hair conditioner, not to mention the good china.


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