We’re waiting on the front porch of Jack and Sonia Hatch’s three-storey home in Sherman Hill, a desirable district of Des Moines, Iowa. Pillars, parquet flooring, leftish middle-class clutter. It’s a fantastic, warm evening. About sixty of us, a handful of journalists, but mostly Sherman Hill residents, have come to see Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, New York Knicks professional basketball star and Rhodes scholar who wants the Democrats’ nomination for President of the United States.

Jack Hatch, once an Iowa state representative, now some kind of consultant, is Bradley’s man in Des Moines. Hatch asks me about the Third Way, which he’s been reading about, and seems mildly put out when I play the answer for laughs. He’s proud of the changes in the once crime-ridden neighbourhood since he came here 25 years ago, and when Bradley arrives, makes a short speech about how ‘people here have empowered themselves ... it changed because of people that have invested time and money and social equity.’

Iowa is the stage for the first proper event of the Presidential campaign, the state caucuses tentatively set for 31 January 2000, which trigger a season of state-by-state primaries. It and the other early starter, New Hampshire, are the pivotal states in most campaigns to win the Democrat and Republican nominations. It’s in Iowa that George McGovern emerged as the surprise Democrat candidate in 1972; here that Jimmy Carter, an obscure former one-term governor of Georgia, campaigned almost in secret and ended up in the White House. I come across voters here who have met four or five candidates; voters who have met the same candidate four times; activists who explain how they joined a campaign after hearing a particular candidate years ago. The presentation of the Presidential election campaign itself was lost long ago to the demands of television, but there is still a residual belief that what Americans call ‘retail politics’ can influence the nomination process. ‘I tell my friend in New York, we’re winnowing out the bad candidates,’ says Paula Connolly, a health worker, at Hatch’s house.

Iowa’s political complexion appears unexceptional – the national American picture in miniature. Republicans and Democrats have one senator each; Republicans, the most seats in the House of Representatives; Democrats, a newly-elected Governor. Voter registration measures at roughly one third Dem., one third Rep., one-third Independent. In the Presidential elections of 1992 and 1996 the state vote reflected national percentages almost exactly. But in 1988 it produced a higher vote for Michael Dukakis, against George Bush, than any other state bar one. The residents of Sherman Hill attest to a strong left-wing strain in Iowa’s politics which has been influential and may be so again. They worry about health, education, environment, with the recognisable language and manner of Labour Party activists. One guest of the Hatches, Nancy Stillians, is preoccupied with campaign finance reform, and tells me ideally she would vote for a bizarre dream-ticket of Bradley and Republican senator John McCain, who both advocate it. But most are straightforwardly undecided between Bradley and the other Democratic contender and favourite, Al Gore.

Bradley arrives, six and a half feet tall and ramrod straight. He walks round the room, shaking hands and saying something to everybody. Earlier, he had complimented a woman; now he meets her husband. ‘That’s your wife? She has, she’s got the best skin I’ve ever seen.’ A woman tells him urgently: ‘Cut the federal prosecutions and stop incarcerating all of our addicts. We have a son and all he had was some methamphetamines. It’s a travesty of justice.’ Bradley promises to write with a response.

Then, in the corner of the front porch, he speaks for 35 minutes about his background and his perception of the Presidency. Now and again he flicks down the flap of an outside rug with his foot. ‘I grew up in a small town, 3492 people, on the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri ... My mother wanted me to be a success, my father wanted me to be a gentleman.’ He wants a government ‘that gives some meaning in our life that will be greater than the material’. Where ‘every child in America has a chance to realise his or her potential.’ He jokes, a bit, about basketball. And, reading the mood of the gathering, he tacks to the left, tendentiously criticising Gore for apparent woolliness on abortion rights, gun control and campaign finance.

‘I am trying to do this campaign in a little bit of a different way, trying to reach out to people at the grassroots level, and I think we’re doing pretty well,’ Bradley says. He asks the television man to switch off the camera lights so he can see the people he’s speaking to even though the media were invited by Bradley’s own people. Push him and he gets vaguer on his differences with Gore. Gore’s people say they don’t know the direction from which Bradley will attack. ‘He’s definitely going to the left,’ the man from the New Republic concludes afterwards, but it could just as well have been a tactical calculation on Bradley’s part. His record shows a centrist Democrat view of the world barely distinguishable from Gore’s. In friendlier times he could be Gore’s Vice-President.

Yet there is something vital and urgent, almost visceral, about the event. It feels like one of those rare occasions when a politician cares more about his audience than the media. For good reason: Bradley’s priority is to get perhaps a dozen key supporters to sign up to his campaign, and he wants to persuade a few more to vote for him, spread the word and ignite the campaign. The Presidential candidate is having to tune in to what his voters think. ‘There’s a certain kind of justice,’ he says, ‘in beginning by talking to people on the front porch in a summer night, in a living room or in small meetings ... I think it’s right that when you run for the most important office in the world that this is where you begin, same as it does when you start in politics.’

‘I hope if you feel good about me, you’ll vote for me,’ Bradley says, his flat speaking voice badly disguising his desperation and excitement. ‘I need your help.’ Nancy Stillians asks him to run as an Independent. He walks up to her and mock-whispers in her ear: ‘No.’ But when he asks, ‘Will you go to the caucus with me?’ she says yes, and blushes.

That same day, at the Holiday Inn near Des Moines airport, the Republican Presidential candidate Gary Bauer holds a meeting organised by the Iowa Family Policy Centre, a conservative Christian group claiming 4300 members. Chuck Hanley, its president, leads prayers before introducing the speaker. Bauer, who’s as short as Bradley is tall, requires commitment from the voters even more urgently than Bradley. He’s trying to persuade people to give up their next Saturday to vote for him in the Iowa straw poll half an hour’s drive away in Ames, the venue for a Republican carnival where candidates pay $25 per voter, pitch marquees and lay on free food and entertainment for their voters. With a good showing, he would emerge as the leading social conservative in the Republican race. Bauer is opposed to gay rights and stridently anti-abortion – ‘1.5 million children a year have no place at the table of America.’ One of his main platforms is the demand for the repeal of China’s favoured trading status – ‘that’s what Ronald Reagan would have done and that’s what I would do.’

‘I’m a Reagan Republican,’ he says – often – in a similar vein to fellow conservative challengers Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes, but more effectively. ‘He believed what he said. He didn’t have his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing.’ Bauer tells how as a child in 1964 he watched a Reagan speech endorsing Barry Goldwater, and told his father that one day Reagan would be in the White House and he would be working for him. The story serves several purposes: it’s a nod to the last Republican President to win two terms, a reminder of the day when headbanging conservatism was last in fashion, and it reflects America’s elegiac preparation for the Gipper’s death. But it is also an obvious strike on the frontrunner, Texas Governor George W. Bush, whose father took on Reagan’s job and lost it to the Democrats. In his speeches, Bauer, well received by Hanley and other members of the policy centre, is good at sticking it to George W. But he falters when the audience asks him why the Republicans keep losing Presidential elections. The belief that Bush might change that is the main reason he is doing so well in the polls. ‘I think the American people are ambivalent about Bill Clinton,’ Bauer says. ‘There is some evidence to the extent that they are disappointed in his character’ – he hesitates – ‘and ... they may take it out on Al Gore. I think it would be a mistake to blame the American people for the last six or seven years.’ He recovers: ‘We failed to give people a reason to vote for us.’

Hanley, an amiable 40-year-old, doubles up and roars with laughter when he hears my surname and that I am currently working for the Washington Post. He is still wrestling with his interpretation of how and whether the Republicans can respond to the deterioration of American society. ‘Because of Hollywood, because of thirty years of Roe v. Wade, sexual ethics have deteriorated to the point that people would give Bill Clinton a pass on that sort of egregious behaviour,’ he says. Asked if he thinks a hardline social conservative can be elected President again, he admits: ‘My hope says yes, my head is very sceptical.’ And adds: ‘But optimistically I think the sexual revolution will crash and burn. The pendulum will swing, somewhat.’

Later, Hanley speaks up in support of Mary, a 52-year-old mother of two, who won’t give me her surname without her husband’s permission, but tells me why she doesn’t approve of Republican candidate Elizabeth Dole. ‘I think that God has ordained the man to be the leader and the woman should be his help and mother,’ Mary says. ‘I believe the man should hold the highest office of the United States and women do not have the God-given authority to run a country, business-wise, financially or especially in the leadership of the military.’ How does she explain the popularity of Clinton? ‘Satan is alive and well. It’s the only way I can explain it.’ It was worth coming to Iowa just to hear that.

In the Hotel Pattee in Perry, forty miles north-east of Des Moines, Steve Forbes, publishing tycoon and Republican candidate, foolish smile and dismal oratory, buys a slap-up lunch for sixty while laying out his plans for a 17 per cent flat income tax rate. Forbes, despite his inherited fortune, plays the outsider card and tries to appeal to insecure, politically-inexperienced voters who feel abandoned by traditional politics. Others are attracted by the fact that he spent nearly $2m on the Iowa straw poll alone and plans to spend several million more. ‘At least he’s spending his own money,’ somebody tells me. Ralph Haskins, a 41-year-old builder, introduces Forbes. ‘We have lost touch with what America’s all about. He’s the only candidate that’s going to help our entire – and I mean entire – country.’ He told me that he’d been thinking of voting for Elizabeth Dole but met Forbes for the first time the day before and, just like that, was asked to introduce him at the meeting. Everyone who turns up can have their picture taken with Forbes; by the time the lunch is over he and his wife have produced 32 identical smiles alongside 32 different sets of people.

Bradley and Bauer and Forbes are all fighting the same perception that they won’t be their parties’ candidates, the same apparent inevitability that Gore will win the Democrats’ nomination and George W. Bush the Republicans’. This sense of inevitability means that Gore and Bush get more money for their campaign coffers, making them even more likely to win. Gore has, in a sense, been running for eight years. He wins debates. His family life is, so to speak, unimpeachable. And he is Vice President in an administration which Democrats – despite Monica, because of a glorious set of economic statistics – have no option but to regard as a success. Not choosing Gore would pose huge presentational problems for the Democrats. It’s difficult to imagine Clinton’s valedictory speech – they would have to allow him one – at the Democrat Convention next year followed by a snub to his chosen successor.

Gore has problems. His campaign organisation has been poor. He’s ahead of Bradley on money and support, but not as far as one might think. He’s well behind Bush in the polls. His long-celebrated woodenness was combined, in the early part of the campaign, with a habit of making embarrassing gaffes. The gaffes have dried up but he will never shake his reputation as a boring speaker. On NBC’s Tonight show, Jay Leno spliced a clip of the new Bruce Willis movie The Sixth Sense, featuring a young boy saying ‘I see dead people’ with a shot of Gore waving.

But when I saw him in Iowa that week, on the stump in Boone, he was very good, although it was plain he doesn’t especially enjoy it. In polo shirt and casual trousers, he looked fit and engaged, delivered a speech in a noticeably stronger twang than he offers in Washington, packed it with policy and laced it with populist touches, hailing war veterans – ‘thank you for saving our freedoms, thank you for winning the war’ – and talking about becoming a grandparent for the first time. He referred to Clinton by name only once, on the economy – ‘I’m proud of what the Clinton-Gore Administration has done to bring our economy back strong.’ This was a much more conventional, staged political event: detectives whispering down sleeves, media people shepherded into a pen, a speech on the steps of the courthouse and no questions. All the same, it went down well with the punters. Gore seems to have been listening and encapsulated the state’s economic anxiety better than anyone else I heard that week, describing ‘two Iowas’ – on the one hand Des Moines, replete with its prosperous middle class and 2.6 per cent unemployment, on the other a resentful agricultural sector, hurt by drought and shrinking export markets.

Gore, Veep to a popular two-term President, would have been the Democrats’ nominee most years. It’s Bush who appears to be rewriting the manual on winning Presidential nominations. It’s probably too early to say, but I may be seeing the beginning of the end of traditional porchside primary politics. Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s leading political reporter, has described how reform designed to put nominations in the hands of the voters, by-passing mysterious figures in smoke-filled rooms at the party conventions, was ‘turned on its head by the rapid coalescence’ around Bush. Waves of congressmen, senators, governors and other senior Republicans have rushed to back him before a primary vote has been cast. ‘A powerful combination of Republican elected officials, party leaders and major contributors – aided by news media that have given Bush outsized coverage at the expense of his rivals – threatens to short-circuit the process and diminish the voice of the voters to a handful of states,’ Balz wrote.

Worried by a poor showing in the midterm Congressional elections, the Republican establishment ditched Newt Gingrich and his allies and searched for a credible, electable, emphatically mainstream candidate to take on the well-established Gore. They settled on the 53-year-old Bush with a decisiveness that must have surprised and delighted him. Sure, he is a name, a former President’s son. But he is untested as a national political figure, a two-term Governor of a state where the power vested in that office is limited, and prior to that a moderately successful businessman. Take away his five years in Texas and he is no more a career politician than Forbes or Ross Perot. And yet the early support – both the political endorsements and the big money – has gone with Bush to an inordinate degree. Several candidates, like McCain, a serious and effective politician and, less credibly, Dan Quayle and Orrin Hatch, appear to be running on the basis that they will pick up the baton if Bush falls.

Individual states, seeking to have a greater say over the nomination process, have pushed their primaries forward earlier and earlier, but the effect, in many cases, has been the reverse of what they intended. The role of state-by-state, doorstep campaigning has increasingly been circumvented. It used to be the case that a candidate had to get ‘bounce’ from a good showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, not just in terms of coverage and support but money, too. Bush has already scooped the money – $37 million dollars by mid-year and rising rapidly. This is good publicity in itself: the papers are currently writing as much about the money as they are about policy. The sense of the primary season as a series of unfolding chapters in a story is in danger of being lost. Instead, it feels like there could be just one big, brief nationwide blockbuster starring George W. Bush. The nomination is his to lose. The winnowing out of candidates is taking place even before Iowa and the other states get a chance to see the candidates in action. Other people are deciding that for them.

Bush spent less time in Iowa before the straw poll than any other candidate taking part – 10 days over a few months. In the final run-up to the event on Saturday 14 August – to prepare for which other candidates had apparently been living in the state for weeks – he didn’t bother turning up until Thursday night. His campaign feels bigger, more distant. But he has spent more money on it ($750,000, his people say) than any other candidate except Forbes.

I watch the Bush roadshow roll into Cedar Rapids, on a cold and gloomy Friday lunchtime. Five hundred people turn out and Bush, having delivered a standard version of his ‘compassionate conservatism’ speech, spends 45 minutes shaking hands. His press operation is silky smooth. He is funny and likeable and, while he can’t quite match the master, has a Clintonesque style on the stump. ‘I know it’s probably inconvenient for some of y’all that want to go fishing or play golf,’ he says, urging people to vote for him in the straw poll. ‘But we are talking about the future of the country.’ His supporters don’t seem to know much about his policies – there aren’t that many – but they are enthusiastic about him.

The next day, Bush wins the straw poll, no problem. Bauer does well to get fourth, and wins his spurs as the leading social conservative; Elizabeth Dole looks good in third; Forbes’s second place could only have been a disappointment. A couple of weeks later, on the day I’m writing, Bush is still confidently ahead. The week after Iowa he was hit by a blizzard of bad publicity about his response to rumours he had used cocaine as a young man (Jay Leno: ‘it looks like it’s going to be Gore v Bush – a bleeding heart liberal versus a bleeding nose conservative’). But even now, the jury’s still out on whether that spate of poor headlines did him any harm. If he wins, Bush would hardly be the first establishment candidate to be selected. But he might be the first under a process which is pretending to be something else, where the primary season starts not before but after the men in dark suits have decided what they decide.

Sometimes, watching candidates beg, plead and cajole supporters on the stump in Iowa, I feel enthused, even inspired, by the nomination process – even with Bush, who sounds and feels the part and suggests plenty of good reasons why he has such widespread support at this early stage. But at other times, as one watches him, the fact that the important decisions have been made elsewhere seems inescapable. We don’t know yet whether the George W. way is inspired by circumstances unique to him and this Presidential race, or the beginning of a new style of primary politics. We won’t know, even assuming Bush wins the nomination, until an election or two after November 2000. Let’s hope it’s a one-off.

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