One after another this week, in speeches throughout Iowa, you were more than likely to hear a familiar lament from Chris Dodd, Joseph Biden and Bill Richardson: Too much media attention to big money and celebrity.
“I’m glad Iowa is making the decision — not the national media,” Richardson said at one event yesterday.
Together this “second-tier” of candidates has spent the better part of a year pitching their experience, their foreign policy credentials, even their gravitas — but none has knocked any of the political stars out of the top tier.
Although Biden and Richardson have drawn markedly larger crowds (in the hundreds in some cases) in recent days, and Dodd has a driven following of his own, their poll numbers have rarely moved out of the single digits in the state.
More than likely, one or more will not be in the race after Thursday night. Under caucus rules, if none of them reach 15% at individual precinct , they have to drop out or throw their support to another candidate. Barack Obama started making the pitch to Biden and Dodd supporters last week.
So are the media to blame?
“It’s predictable, because publicity begets money, money begets publicity….It has sort of been a three person show,” Biden said after a speech I attended last month in Boone, Iowa, where he seemed to impress a crowd packed into a living room with his first-hand accounts of trying to resolve the crisis in Pakistan (before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination) and with his impassioned support for military veterans. He also answers short questions with very long answers — all but exhausting the questioner.
The “second-tier” class has had to go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to get noticed. Last week, in Decorah, Iowa, Dodd even bought dinner for salesman John Franzen. But it was a no-go: Franzen, who liked Dodd, had long pledged his support to Edwards.
They’ve also tried to capitalize on celebrity themselves: Singer Paul Simon campaigned with Dodd last summer. “West Wing” star Richard Schiff campaigned for Biden last weekend. And Richardson got the endorsement of Martin Sheen.
But it’s doubtful any of those tactics will make much of a difference, other than momentary publicity.
Absent huge sums for advertising campaigns, they’ve instead had to rely on a star showing in a debate. Richardson has never really warmed up to the format. And Dodd this week called the debates “disgraceful” in how time was allocated to candidates. Other than Dodd’s opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the media has directed some of their most attention to Dodd’s Web site timer on how long each candidate has been given to speak the forums.
“None of what was going on on stage was relevant to average people out there…all the practical things that average people are concerned about,” Biden said of the Las Vegas debate.
“We should have had a two hour debate on health care, a two hour debate on education, a two hour debate on foreign policy, a couple hour debate on energy. Now, the sixty second sound bite thing, I don’t know.”
Yet Biden has consistently stood out among all the candidates at the debates, landing some of the best one-liners of the primary race. His quip about Rudy Giuliani, that he speaks in “a noun, a verb and 9/11,” was a signature moment at the forums. Other times, he seemed to be mocking the entire process itself while at the same time mastering its demands for snappy sound bites.
He shares a joke about it.
“In the Philadelphia debate and the debate in Las Vegas, I got a lot of credit from your profession saying I had done well or I had done the best or I had been one of the best, and my brother Jimmy, who is a real wag, called me in the Philadelphia. He said, ‘Well Joe, I just read that Hillary got 21 minutes, Barack 19 and you got six and they said you won. There’s a lesson in that, Joe.”
The irony is that the media spectacle of Iowa actually gives these candidates a better shot than they would have had in perhaps any other state. Had Super Tuesday started off the nomination process, they probably wouldn’t even be in the race by now. And the record number of debates last year — an unending series of YouTube videos and Web queries and lightning rounds — did give them greater exposure than they would have had even four years ago.
If none of them pulls off a surprise, and the eventual Democratic nominee loses in November, surely there will be plenty of consternation as to why the most experienced candidates were ignored. But it’s hard to point the finger at the media, for even in a race of celebrities and stars, they too have had their moments in the sun.
Here are some on their closing statements.