N. Hampshire to test Iowa's call for change

The stage is set for a showdown that will test the depth of the newcomers' appeal.

Iowa caucus 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iowa caucus 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Democrats and Republicans who voted in the US's first presidential caucuses here both chose political newcomers promising change over established and well-known competitors. Their choice sets the stage for a showdown in New Hampshire on Tuesday that will test the depth of that appeal and whether it can win out against the longer track records and familiar personalities of the other campaign heavyweights. It also raises questions about the importance experience and foreign policy credentials will play in the choice of candidates and in the issues to be addressed as the campaign goes forward. Both Barack Obama, the freshman Illinois senator who is attempting to become the country's first black president, and Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who used stump skills honed as a Baptist preacher to win Thursday's vote, campaigned on criticism of the current order and appealed for change in the politics of the country. It was a message that resonated with voters in this small, predominantly rural and overwhelmingly white Midwestern state, particularly among Democrats. Only 20 percent said having the right experience was the quality that mattered most in a candidate, according to a National Election Pool poll, while 52% said the ability to "bring about needed change" was most important. The vote's result put issues such as Iraq, Iran and the War on Terror on the back burner, indicating that the policies that have loomed large in debates and originally suggested the contours of the race might not be the ones upon which voters choose their preferred candidate. That dynamic seems to have particularly hurt New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been running on a message of experience and competence, and has worked in the Senate and elsewhere to look tough on national security. She only came in third in Iowa, with 29% of the vote compared to Obama's 38% and former North Carolina senator John Edwards's 30%. "So far," National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ira Forman said of the campaign, "it's about broader themes, of change." In addition to Clinton's poor showing, two Democrats whose key selling points were length of service and foreign policy experience - Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd - both dropped out after the results were announced. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has also been running on a record laden with accomplishments as a diplomat, only garnered 2% of the vote. Though the Iraq war has been identified as an important issue and Clinton has faced criticism for her vote to authorize the war as well as recent backing for an anti-Iran measure, Forman said he saw little to suggest that these issues were what swayed Iowa voters. So despite the backdrop of Iraq and terrorist threats, Iowans seemed to be looking elsewhere - to the spirit of change, to economic security, to personable leaders. That helped Obama and Huckabee move past criticisms and gaffes over foreign policy, as both were vulnerable for not having munch of a track record on international affairs. Obama was hurt early on by Clinton attacks that he was "irresponsible and naïve" on foreign policy after saying that he would meet with Iranian and Syrian leaders without preconditions within a year of taking office, a comment that concerned some Jewish voters. And in the last month, Huckabee has faced a string of embarrassments over foreign policy issues. He initially said he was unfamiliar with the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran after it came out, wrongly described the geography of Pakistan, and exaggerated the threat of Pakistani infiltrations to the United States following the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. As it happens, the foreign policies they've staked out aren't tremendously different. They both strongly back Israel, express a willingness to talk to Iran and have criticized the Bush administration for arrogance in world affairs. In contrast, other candidates, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and to some extent Clinton, have positioned themselves as more hawkish, while others such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former North Carolina senator John Edwards are arguably more dovish. The results in Iowa mean that foreign policy shifts from an end to a means in the campaign, according to Democratic political strategist Steve Rabinowitz, who isn't affiliated with any candidate. Instead of weighing where candidates stand, their experience and stances are used to further arguments about the qualities of the competitors. "It changes the debate away from the policy," he said. "The issues still get used - from his [Obama's] side, to inform the image that he's up to the task, or on the other side, to argue that he's not." Alan Solomont, a major fund-raiser and Jewish community leader who helps advise Obama on Middle East issues, rejected the criticism that his candidate is vulnerable because of his newness to the international arena. "The argument is wearing thin," said Solomont, who pointed to the caucus tally. "We're not hiring a technician here. We're hiring a leader." He added, "Clearly this election is about change. We've been saying that from the outset, which is why this a very validating result. Obama has cemented his position as the change candidate." Solomont also implied that experience in office and abroad isn't necessarily a selling point as he referred to the "poignant" image of former president Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, standing beside Hillary Clinton as she delivered her concession speech Thursday night. "If there was a picture of the political past, that was it," he said. "It's a past that I'm proud of, but it's not the picture of the future." That argument worked in Iowa, but that doesn't mean it will work elsewhere. The results of the caucuses, in which only a small percentage of voters participate, are often overturned in the New Hampshire vote, the first presidential primary. New Hampshire voters are independent-minded and often make different choices than their Iowa peers, and both have selected candidates in the past who don't ultimately prevail in the largest states. Because of the compressed primary schedule this year, in which most of the population will have voted by February 5, Iowa and particularly New Hampshire could play an even more influential role than usual. "Clearly, it says that Iowa caucus-goers last night didn't care so much about foreign policy experience or rhetoric," said Rabinowitz of Thursday's result. "But the question remains of how representative they are of the rest of the country."