Feeling Right

Will Woodward at the Iowa Straw Poll

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.

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