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Iowa, the unlikely kingmaker

The American heartland braces for quadrennial turn in spotlight

IOWA CITY – There is a definite buzz at the Hamburg Inn, site of the world-famous – at least in Iowa City – Coffee Bean Caucus. Every four years the proprietors of this popular and friendly diner drag out a series of mason jars and a big bowl of coffee beans. For the price of a meal, a patron gets to deposit a bit of java for the candidate of his or her choice.

The jars, gaily decked out in red-white-and-blue ribbons, are prominently displayed in the window of the Inn, allowing the interested or merely curious to monitor the political fortunes of the host of politicos who have been stumping the state for the past few months.

Welcome to Iowa, whose motto, "1st in the Nation", refers to its jealously guarded prerogative of being the first state to officially pick the frontrunners from the presidential pack, through a statewide system of caucuses.

Iowans are proud of their status, which brings a whole lot of attention to this largely agricultural state every leap year, as well as a welcome boost to the economy. Hotels, restaurants, and most other businesses reap the benefits of the host of candidates, staffers, and the media stars who flock to interview farmers, students, businessmen, and, of course, diners at places like Hamburg Inn.

But there is a prickly side to the Iowan nature, which bristles at some of the descriptions that have been circulating lately about their home state. Iowa is a place that many love to denigrate, and the population is not amused. In numerous conversations with Iowa residents, a catalogue of grievances is never far from the surface.

John Huntsman, former ambassador to China, most likely forfeited any chance of ever being elected to office in the so-called “flyover states” with his cavalier dismissal of the Iowa caucuses. He has declined to campaign here, concentrating on the New Hampshire primary, compounding the slight with his highly impolitic remark to the media, “They pick corn in Iowa, and pick presidents here in New Hampshire.”

His jar reflected the gaffe, containing just a smattering of beans in the bottom.

Rick Perry lost what little remained of his former luster when Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, making a campaign speech for Texas governor, referred to Iowa as the “Buckeye” state. The University of Iowa football team, the Hawkeyes, is far more popular than any mere presidential candidate can ever hope to be; confusing this with Ohio State’s Buckeyes was not a hearts-and-minds move.

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Most hurtful, though, was a recent article in The Atlantic, in which Stephen Bloom, journalism professor at the University of Iowa, reflected on his 20 years in the Hawkeye state. He portrayed Iowa as a rural backwater where the aroma of pig manure is more prized than Chanel, where toothless meth addicts alternate with shotgun-totin’ rednecks, and where dogs are kept only for their hunting skills. He openly questions whether such a culturally deprived locale is appropriate for the great responsibility of picking the next US president.

The public outcry has been so extreme that it is not yet clear whether Bloom can or should return from his yearlong sabbatical in Michigan.

But despite the enormous amount of media attention focused on the ritual that will take place in schools, town halls, and various other venues Tuesday evening, how important are the Iowa caucuses?

Almost every Iowan interviewed will point out that it was the 2008 caucuses that spurred Barack Obama to victory.

They are silent, however, on the fact that the same series of neighborhood meetings picked Mike Huckabee as the Republican frontrunner.

In fact, Iowa has a spotty record of identifying winners. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton came in third in Iowa, before going on to win the nomination and, eventually, the election. Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in 1980 before staging his successful run for the presidency.

So the small army of commentators trying to unravel the meaning of the Iowa caucuses may be singing a very different tune on Wednesday morning.

Right now former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul are neck and neck in the polls; Romney is holding steady at 24 percent, while Paul has gained several points over the past few days to come in at 22 percent.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has staked it all on Iowa by hitting each one of the state’s 99 counties, has experienced a last-minute “surge” to 15 percent. The rest of the pack are far behind, and unlikely to influence the vote significantly.

But any predictions at this point could be misleading. At the Hamburg Inn, the jar belonging to Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman had by far the most beans – indicating that the Minnesota congresswoman had visited the diner just three weeks ago.

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“Iowans like to see the candidates, talk to them,” said a cashier at the Inn. “Once Bachman came, her jar got filled up very quickly.”

Her cause was helped, apparently, by protesters from Iowa’s miniscule Occupy movement, which sent hecklers to the diner to communicate their displeasure with Bachman.

“I shook her hand and told her she was a disgrace,” said one Occupy organizer.

But Iowans like underdogs, and, bean-wise at least, rushed to her defense.

The Occupy movement has a few dozen tents on College Green Park, but a recent visit showed just a few regulars present, and those of somewhat limited effectiveness. Michael, a homeless man who said he studied law and specialized in cold fusion, lamented his inability to stabilize hydrogen and said that Iowa was all about hope.

Michael indicated he did not plan to caucus on Tuesday.

Iowa City is a bit of a liberal enclave in Iowa, courtesy of the university and its 30,000 students. Des Moines, the state capital, a more heavily Republican city, is getting most of the media and candidate attention this time around.

At first glance, Republicans in Iowa City appear to be scarce on the ground, although a few posters for Rick Santorum and Ron Paul could be seen in neighborhood yards. More prominent are evangelical billboards, such as a Christmassy “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and other religious messages.

In Hamburg Inn, the only candidate with more than one jar was Barack Obama, who had three, all of them filled to overflowing.

Nevertheless, the state that gave him is political push in 2008 is far from as enthusiastic about the incumbent this time around. A sense of disappointment is palpable.

Wally, the manager of the wine department at a local boutique grocery, is a colorful figure straight out of the 1960s. With a braided ponytail and an easygoing manner, he treated visitors on New Year’s Eve to free samples of champagne from a bottle he had decapitated with a saber.

He is planning to caucus on Tuesday – to reflect the anger and disaffection many Democrats are feeling.

“The president is about to suspend habeas corpus,” he said, as his guests sipped bubbly from small paper cups.

Wally was referring to a provision of the defense authorization bill that critics say gives the U.S. military the right to detain and hold indefinitely U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, even if they are apprehended on American soil. The president has signed the bill, “with reservations,” but insists that he will not allow the wholesale abrogation of important legal safeguards.

“I think it is important that we register our discomfort with this,” said Wally.

With just one day to go before the long-awaited caucuses, Iowa is still in flux. So, it seems, is the country.

Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and even Michele Bachman may battle away for the hearts and minds of the Iowa caucus goers.

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But in Iowa City, at the Hamburg Inn at least, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome.

A waiter, asked for his political preference, demanded his tip before he would respond. Pocketing his five dollars and change, he smiled, leaned in and said “Obama,” before striding back off into the kitchen.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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Iowans are flooded with campaign mail at caucus time.