Report from Iowa: The Republicans

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This post is for the political horserace fans out there in Swampland. Everyone else may want to move on to the next post:

After a day following Mitt Romney through Waterloo and Dubuque (and getting a really interesting tour of an ethanol plant–wish I could have brought my 10-year-old son), I’m beginning to wonder whether this first caucus is going to turn out to be something of a challenge for John McCain. The Arizona Senator has lined up a lot of the top political talent in the state, which matters a lot. But the crowds who turned up to take a look at Romney were surprisingly large and enthusiastic for this early point, several hundred at both of his public appearances.

Immigration dominated the questions Romney got in Waterloo, suggesting the issue–one on which McCain is at odds with the Republican base–still has a lot of resonance. And I didn’t hear a single question about Iraq, except from reporters. When I went around and talked to people–randomly, and an unscientific sampling, to be sure–I heard a lot of resentment toward the putative frontrunner from the kind of very conservative Republicans who tend to dominate their caucuses. There is some lingering resentment over the fact that McCain ignored this state in 2000, a fair amount of carping about McCain-Feingold (the awareness and resentment being another surprise to me), but mostly, a complaint that they didn’t feel McCain was reliably one of them. This is the impression that McCain is going to be fighting hardest to change over the next year, but you’ve got to wonder how much doing what it does to win the primary battle will cost him in a general election race. Here, by the way, is something I wrote on that score for the magazine last December.

As for Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor is still very much in the getting-to-know-you phase with primary voters–telling them a lot about his biography and talking vague, optimistic themes. Things will surely get tougher when McCain’s folks start pointing out Romney’s (pick one) changes of heart/Massachusetts flip-flops on, for instance, abortion. But for now, Romney’s approach seems to be working. I was particularly amused by a group of startstruck Young Republicans from the University of Iowa, who were squealing like they were at a rock concert. When I asked one of them what they liked about this guy, he said: “He reminds me of Reagan–he really does!” So I couldn’t resist asking this young man when he was born: 1986.

Today: Hillary does Des Moines. Lots of hype. My buddy Roger Simon has a funny take.