DES MOINES, Iowa — Want an early hint how the Republican caucuses are going? Check Plymouth County on Thursday evening in remote northwest Iowa — chilly home of Blue Bunny ice cream and a hotbed of evangelical activists who could sway the first voting of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Democrats might get an early take on their caucuses from Newton, a company town battered by the closing of Maytag Corp.’s big plant.
Plymouth’s county seat of Le Mars bills itself as “the ice cream capital of the world” because of the local dairy, but this year in politics “that’s Huckabee territory,” says David Roederer, a veteran activist who’s been advising John McCain’s Iowa campaign this year. A big turnout could be a sign that evangelicals — accounting in past cycles for up to 40 percent of the Republican caucus vote — are delivering for the one-time Baptist minister.
A light turnout could be bad news for the former Arkansas governor and a good sign for rival Mitt Romney.
“That’s a bellwether county,” agrees Chuck Laudner, a strategist with the state’s Republican Party.
Democrats will be looking toward Newton in the central part of the state to get a feel for how the messages of their leading candidates have gone over. It’s a Democratic town of about 15,000 and used to be the home for Maytag, an iconic Iowa manufacturer that has shut down and tossed thousands out of work.
John Edwards has used that closure as a symbol for his populist message that rich and powerful businesses are out to exploit working families. He even used a former Maytag worker as the voice for his closing television commercial. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have contested the town, and it could be an early barometer.
“There are a lot of active caucus-goers out there,” says Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan.
Rivals in both parties also could get an early read from Warren County, just south of Des Moines. It’s a prosperous white-collar county that has been targeted by many campaigns.
Along the Mississippi River, there will be early signs in a couple of spots. Dubuque on the northern edge of the state and Fort Madison along the southern edge are blue-collar Democratic towns that worry a lot about pocketbook issues. They will offer a test of Edwards’ edgy populist message, and they are also just across the river from Illinois where Obama is a senator.
“We think we’re running a bit better there,” said Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat from Dubuque and an Obama backer. Iowa has a history of rewarding neighboring politicians. Missouri’s Richard Gephardt and Kansas’ Bob Dole have won past caucuses, and Illinois’ Paul Simon ran strong in the state.
Democrats in Des Moines and Dubuque tend to be pragmatists, looking for a candidate who can get the party back into the White House. They will offer a test of Clinton’s argument that she’s such a candidate.
Also along the Mississippi, the Quad Cities could be another barometer of which way the state is leaning. Al Gore carried the area in the 2000 election and claimed the state’s seven electoral votes by a hair. George Bush won in 2004, and the state went Republican — barely.
Linn County is the state’s second-largest and includes Cedar Rapids. It’s a battleground for the GOP, with both a significant number of mainstream Republicans and a big concentration of evangelicals.
If Romney is going to win the GOP caucuses this year, he probably has to win Linn County over Huckabee.
For Democrats, there’s yet another measure in western Iowa’s Carroll County, a Democratic island in a Republican ocean.
The results in that county in 2004 gave John Kerry 42 percent, Edwards 37 percent, Howard Dean 16 percent and Gephardt 5 percent, virtually matching the statewide results.
Democrats also will be looking at Johnson County and Story County, home to the University of Iowa and Iowa State University respectively. Obama has drawn huge crowds in those college towns, but students now are home on their holiday breaks.