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Commentary: Why is Iowa so important in politics?

Why so much attention to a small state that has such a modest record in picking nominees, an even more modest record in picking presidents, and that rarely plays the decisive role of Florida, Ohio or California in the general election?...

Why so much attention to a small state that has such a modest record in picking nominees, an even more modest record in picking presidents, and that rarely plays the decisive role of Florida, Ohio or California in the general election?

Think about some recent Iowa winners: George Bush in 1980, when Reagan went on to trounce; Gary Hart, whose second place finish was considered a "victory" in 1984, and who then went on to win New Hampshire and lose the nomination; Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole in 1988, neither of whom won their party's nomination that year. Bill Clinton skipped Iowa in 1992 because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was in the race. Clinton finished second in New Hampshire and went on to do just fine; John Kerry won both primaries in 2004, and he didn't.

So why is the entire world of media and politics camped out in Des Moines this week, as if what happens there will determine what happens later, when we all know it very well may not? And perhaps more important, why should we pay the kind of attention we do?

I've been asking Iowans that question, often through chattering teeth, since I got here, and the answer is always about how Iowa and Iowans test candidates in ways that big states down the road don't, in ways that are good for democracy. I've been hearing the same answer for a few decades now, and much as I appreciate the seriousness with which some Iowans take their politics, I'm not convinced.

It used to be the case that media was meaningless in Iowa, that it was only about meeting people one-on-one, the farmhouse visits, the coffees and the way candidates did up-close campaigning and person-by-person organizing. If that's still true, it's not clear why the airwaves here have been flooded by ads, why candidates have competed to bring in celebrities and rock stars for big city-style rallies, why the "Oprah factor" should be a factor at all.

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It's not clear that the factors that make certain people -- a Mike Huckabee, for instance -- great Iowa candidates are the factors that predict who can win a nomination, win a general election, not to mention govern the country. If Iowa is all about how people look up close and personal, how they connect with people in a living room, then general election politics is far more about how they do from a distance, how they deal with the big moments and whether they're ready to deal with the crises a president will face.

Up close, all the people I've talked to who have met Huckabee, many of them more than once, describe him as the "real thing," as a person of genuine warmth, as someone who connects. From a distance, given his record as governor, his propensity to gaffes, and his trove of former sermons denouncing Charles Darwin and the Mormon Church, he looks more like a Democrat's dream.

Up close, people who have met Barack Obama tell me they have been inspired by his optimism, his vision, and yes, his youth. From a distance, the question that few seem to have asked is whether he has the experience and the seasoning for the job he seeks. When I ask people about his record as a state senator, his accomplishments in Springfield and in Washington, eyes glaze. One person actually pointed out to me that he was, after all, a former president of the Harvard Law Review, which made me laugh because so am I and I wouldn't for a moment claim it qualifies either of us to be president of the United States.

John Edwards has been here for much of the last two years, but he can't spend that kind of time anywhere else. What does being able to win support that way tell us about his ability to win it the way it has to be done in Florida, Ohio and California, much less about what it takes to lead America in this increasingly dangerous world?

Maybe not much is the answer, which is why the process begins but rarely ends here. Iowa is a ticket to the next round, the beginning of the process, not its culmination.

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