Portrait of a Precinct Captain

Dubuque, Iowa--This is a pretty town, with a river that cuts through limestone cliffs, but if you want a picture of the place, you'd do well to take a snapshot of Bert Ament.

At the John Edwards headquarters tonight, Ament was still wearing her name badge from work. She's 57, has short, feathery gray hair, and a high school degree. Ament is attractive and competent, with calloused fingers, and speaks all in a rush, like she's not used to people listening to her.

Since she started working at age 17, Ament has been a seamstress at a Flexdale factory, a shift worker at HBO printing, a waitress, a cake decorator, a financial services professional, and now finally a teacher's associate at the Hillcrest School for behaviorally disturbed students. The arc of her career follows Dubuque's path over the last 40 years: from an industrial town, to a near-abandoned one and now a reviving city with white-collar jobs and an increasingly educated population.

In some ways Ament is gambling more on the old version of Dubuque than the new. Tonight, she hopes to tap into the power and frustration of Dubuque's blue-collar workers, whom she believes Edwards represents.

"I made more in 1978 than I do today," she said. Then, the factory paid her by the piece; now, she said, those jobs are going to China.

Yet the truth is that Ament no longer works at the factory, either. Ament concedes that perhaps more than wages or jobs, what's really motivating her is what she calls a corporate culture of greed and the bottom line.

It's Edwards' message to a 'T.' No wonder Ament was motivated not only to caucus for the first time, but to be a precinct captain. "He's one of us," she said. "He comes from our background."

Now the question is: How much does the rest of Iowa, to say nothing of the U.S., look like Dubuque?