Iowa City--More than 300 people jammed into the Mill, one of Iowa City's popular local bars, to see Bill Richardson the night before the caucuses. For a small place on a cold night to see a likely distant fourth-place candidate, it was a good turnout. Yet, when Richardson arrived, standing awkwardly at a side door until his cue, the campaign cranked up as its theme song U2's Where the Streets Have No Name.
It seemed an ominous but accurate choice. "I wanna run, I wanna hide, I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside..."
Richardson, in a black wool shirt with elbow pads, made his way to the stage, where he stood stiffly with his arms folded across his chest. Occasionally, he forced a smile.
When Tom Udall, Richardson's opening act, introduced the candidate as "John," the candidate hardly even blinked.
Gallows humor and resignation seem to be the way Richardson is coping with his place on the margins of the race. "There must be 10,000 people here," he said, squinting out at the crowd. The audience laughed. At another point, Richardson said wearily, "I don't know where I've been today. Some of these counties I can't even pronounce."
"Johnson!" someone shouted helpfully. That got a good laugh, too.
If the tone of the event was upbeat and friendly, a dark tone ran beneath it. The only time Richardson departed from a generic pro-Democrat, anti-Bush message was to remind voters than JFK was the last senator elected president.
"That was supposed to be funny," he said, in a voice dry enough to catch fire. "I'm a governor. America elects governors."
But the Democrats probably won't this time around. Why hasn't Richardson, who blends Edwards' populism, Obama's self-deprecating humor, Clinton's wonkishness, and Biden's foreign policy experience, fared better in this race?
"Money," said Ramiro, a Richardson volunteer.
"Money," said Timothy, the director of a local theater.
"The financial issue," said Carrie, a die-hard Richardson supporter. "That's why I'm looking for the next president to instill some campaign finance reform."
Richardon's less-than-stellar showing may also be about timing--the popular perception is that the other Democratic candidates are particularly strong this year. And it may have something to do with the difference between a strong candidate and a strong campaigner. Compared to the mega-watt charisma of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, Richardson can appear flat.
But for many in the audience, Richardson's story is primarily a cautionary tale about all that's rotten with presidential politics these days.
"The top three candidates came out so early!" lamented Christine.
"He was always in the shadows, at the edge of the stage in all the debates," said Ramiro.
"I think he has done better," insisted Daniella, who joined 200 other people from New Mexico to volunteer for Richardson's Iowa campaign. "People just played to what the media said."
"It makes me angry," said Gretchen. "The media only talks about Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. For a national audience, it makes it sound as if Iowans are only looking at the top three."
In fact, the crowded rooms, campaign buttons, street signs, and bumper stickers around Des Moines and Iowa City suggest many Iowans take Richardson, Dodd, and Biden--who are trailing in the polls--seriously.
Unfortunately for Richardson, the mechanics of the Iowa Democratic caucuses are likely only to make things worse.
For candidates to be viable for delegates, they must have the support of 15% of those present and voting in the precinct, explained Christopher Hull, an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown and author of Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents.
This means that even though a candidate may have support across the state, supporters will likely not be spread evenly throughout the precincts. Supporters will have to caucus for another candidate or remain undecided.
"Let's put it this way," said Hull. "Candidates who poll at under 15% in the Des Moines Register Iowa poll are really screwed."
Richardson polled at 6%.