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Presidential race in Iowa quieter than in the past

DES MOINES, Iowa — It's been a different presidential race in Iowa this year — quieter.

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Campaign headquarters have hardly been buzzing with activity, unlike the round-the-clock nature of past contests. Candidates have barely visited the state, compared with years when most all but moved here. And they have largely refrained from building the grass roots armies of yesteryear, in favor of more modest on-the-ground teams of paid staffers and volunteers.

The final rush of campaigning here gets under way today, just a week before the Jan. 3 caucuses, and, to be sure, there will be a flurry of candidate appearances and get-out-the-vote efforts all week.

But that will belie the reality of much of 2011, a year marked by a less aggressive personal courtship of Iowans in a campaign that, instead, has largely gravitated around a series of 13 nationally televised debates, a crush of television ads and interviews on media outlets watched by many Republican primary voters, like Fox News Channel.

"We just haven't had as much face time," Republican chairwoman Trudy Caviness in Wapello County said. "That's why we're so undecided."

Indeed, people here simply don't know the Republican presidential candidates that well. And it's a big reason why the contest in Iowa is so volatile and why the caucus outcome could end up being more representative of the mood of national Republicans than in past years when GOP activists have gone it alone by launching an unlikely front-runner to the top of the field.

With a week to go, the state of the race in Iowa generally mirrors the race from coast to coast.

Polls show Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, having lost ground and Texas Rep. Ron Paul having risen, with both still in contention with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the head of the pack. All the others competing in Iowa — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — are trailing.

But, in a sign that the contest is anyone's to win, most polls have shown most Republican caucusgoers undecided and willing to change their minds before the contest in a state where the vote typically breaks late in the campaign year.

There are a slew of reasons why the Iowa campaign is a much more muted affair than in 2008 — marked by the iconic clash of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who together employed almost 300 staff in Iowa and held blockbuster rallies. This year, there is no contested Democratic primary, given that President Obama has no serious challenger. Only Republicans are competing, and those candidates are approaching the state differently, both visiting and hiring less. Also, like it did everywhere else, the race here started slowly — months later than usual — as a slew of GOP politicians weighed candidacies, only to abort White House bids.

Longtime Republican activists here, who often joke that they like to meet the candidates several times before deciding, have barely seen the candidates once, and no campaign has more than 20 paid staff in the state.

All that's partly a consequence of how technology has changed both the political and media environments in recent years. Campaigns now can more precisely — and cheaply — target their pitches to voters from afar, sending personalized emails and YouTube video messages from the candidates to voters directly, and more campaign outreach is being handled by volunteers and through central national websites. And voters, themselves, now can go online and find information about the candidates without having to wait for the White House hopeful to show up in the town square.

"Caucuses don't exist in a vacuum. They're not the same every time," said John Stineman, a West Des Moines Republican activist. "But everything else has changed. Why wouldn't the caucuses change?"

Barb Livingston is proof that, for all the changes, there's still something to be said for the personal approach. She is basing her decision on riding around Marshall County with Romney four years ago. "He's someone personally I connected with."

Presidential race in Iowa quieter than in the past 12/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 25, 2011 9:45pm]

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