Crisscrossing Iowa in search of that breakthrough



As summer wanes, the Democratic Presidential candidates set out in their rented motorhomes to the Iowa State Fair last week, and spread out to the four corners of caucusland when they tired of the midway. They went to the Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake and the Democratic Sizzler in Spirit Lake and all points in between, searching for a way to break out from the pack of 25.

John Hickenlooper met with about 20 locals at Better Day Café in Storm Lake Friday morning, just after a story in Politico said he had been approached to run against Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. He couldn’t deny it. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has the polling to show Hickenlooper could win handily, but the 67-year-old is an entrepreneur and an executive — laid-off geologist, brewpub starter, former mayor of Denver and governor — and the Senate isn’t quite his cup of tea. When you call 70 donors and get two bites, and are struggling to make the debate stage for poor polling, and …

For now you soldier on. You call for the practical and not the impossible before a gathering whose average age is 65. And you wonder if you can make it to February.

No doubt the same thing should be on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s mind, but she wears enthusiasm well. Her redhead son Henry is the campaign “director of fun” and the 12-year-old was blowing bubbles from a gun while his father Jonathan waited in the Winnebago. Henry sticks out a hand to shake yours.

She gets out her notebook and starts explaining carbon fees and a rural development fund. She explains how she has evolved on immigration from a rural-district congresswoman to a senator representing the Big Apple and its polyglot. “Immigrants are creating growth in Syracuse and Buffalo. We know in Upstate New York that refugees are not a threat,” she said.

She raised her fists in the air by having just enough polling support in Iowa to make the next round of debates. That oxygen keeps her breathing, still in the low single digits with Hickenlooper and Delaney and O’Rourke and Ryan and ...

Gillibrand talks like she thinks Henry will be directing fun at 1600 Pennsylvania. He might, but …

Hickenlooper shows up in his camper with “HICK2020” on the side at Plaza Mexico after working the crowd at Better Day. A lot of people — maybe 150 million — are happy with their private health insurance, Hickenlooper argues. He and John Delaney have been trying to get people to listen. But they are on each end of the debate stage and cannot be heard. Gillibrand explained in the first debate round that the public option is a gateway to Medicare for All, but who could pick it up for all the shouting? Someone could grab that line and run all the way to the White House with it.

The money is running tight these days. Hickenlooper knows to the penny how much his launch cost as the former beer-glass washer muttered about how much those special lights cost for the party. Colorado has been a smashing success on every metric, he points out, and the only rise in consumption from legalizing weed has been among arthritic baby boomer Deadheads. He is funny and incredibly friendly personally. He is smart and flexible. Is it pragmatic that Iowans want? Honest? He sure seems to be all those things. He is the second cousin once removed from former Iowa Republican Gov. Bourke Hickenlooper, after all. But he wonders how he can rise above the chatter with a message that sensible and steady wins the race. Barack he is not. He just isn’t the sort who talks aspirational.

You want the guy to win, right at that moment as he wolfs down burritos with glee. You think that more people should meet this amiable and successful man. But someone has to drop. Why him? He says he will give it his best, and maybe there is something even better awaiting him.

“I am blessed,” Hickenlooper said as he boarded the RV for the Wing Ding three hours way. “I’ve got health, money and all day to get there.”

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