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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2004 / 15 Teves, 5764

Roger Simon

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Dick and Jane | DALLAS CENTER, Iowa — The snow blows in great gusts over the frozen furrows of the farm fields as Dick Gephardt's van pokes its way slowly through the blizzard.

Though we are just a few miles west of Des Moines, this is rural America, where the houses are few and far between and the tallest building on the horizon is always a grain elevator.

If you are going to campaign for president in Iowa, you campaign in towns like West Dallas, population 1,500. And when the snow comes up and the temperatures go down you hope for the best as far as drawing a crowd is concerned.

There are seven Democrats trying to win the Jan. 19 presidential nominating caucuses here and most of them are hoping for a strong second or a decent third behind Howard Dean.

Dick Gephardt does not have that luxury. He must win here. The gods of political punditry have so decreed it.

Gephardt won the caucuses here in 1988 (though he lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis), he comes from neighboring Missouri and he has a certain Midwestern sensibility that plays well in these parts.

His campaign will be short of money after Iowa, but a win here might give him enough credibility to replenish his coffers.

So everything depends on going from event to event, small town to small town, telling people why he should be president.

Seated in his van, he peers through the frosted-over windows into a world of swirling white. His wife, Jane, suffering from a cold and the loss of her voice, sits one row forward and at one point taps on the window to get his attention and points to some a particularly nice looking farm yard.

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Gephardt nods. They seems to share a secret code and sometimes don't even need to speak to communicate.

The van finally pulls into town and rolls carefully over the snow-packed streets to a community center. Gephardt exits the van and faces the moment of truth: How many people will be here?

The crowd applauds as he enters. There are about 50 people sitting on folding chairs, which is not bad at all considering the size of the town and the condition of the roads.

As always, Gephardt begins by introducing his wife. "Dick and Jane," he says, as the crowd laughs. "There's nothing I can do about it."

Gephardt's crowds are old enough to remember the Dick and Jane books from elementary school. A fair share of them look old enough to remember World War II. Gephardt's crowds tend to be older, which could be good news for him: Iowa leads the nation in the percentage of its citizenry over 75. Older people tend to vote (while younger ones tend not to.)

That's the good news. The bad news is that Iowa's caucus system is not only odd, but far more physically taxing than regular voting. It's not like a primary when you can go any time throughout the day, cast your ballot and go home.

In Iowa, everyone must show up at the same time — 6:30 p.m. — and publicly declare whom the want (that's right, there is no secret ballot) in a process that can easily take three hours or more.

Since the voting always takes place in winter, it is always dark out, the weather is often bad and some people have to drive long distances to vote. If you are elderly, you have to consider whether it is all worth it.

To some it is, however, and Gephardt is betting his older, experienced supporters, who have been voting in caucuses for decades, will trump Howard Dean's army of young people who have never voted in a caucus before.

Gephardt looks out into the audience where Jane is sitting quietly. "She is the best person I have ever met," he tells the crowd. "Sometimes I choke up when I introduce her because she means so much to me."

Such sincerity can be faked, of course, but I don't think Gephardt fakes it. And every time I hear him say that line, I choke up myself.

Without pausing, Gephardt swings into his stump speech, a mixture of biography, evaluation of present-day America and his plans for the future.

"I am an example of the American dream," he says. "I grew up poor. I went to college on church loans and I worked three jobs. But I had a lot of help. I didn't do it on my own. I'm out here because I believe in my heart we can solve these problems. You've got to be optimistic."

Dick Gephardt says he is optimistic about his chances of winning Iowa. He better be. Because if he doesn't win here, he probably won't win anywhere.

For most candidates, Iowa is where things begin. For Dick Gephardt, it could be where things end.

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