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From the campaign trail: Iowans basking in '08 love

By Sasha Johnson
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN senior political producer Sasha Johnson describes a whirlwind week on the campaign trail in Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- A backyard barbecue with more than 200 guests, an event center bustling with loyal Republicans at noon and a high school gym at capacity by 5 p.m.: It must be Iowa with presidential contenders in town.

Three days in Iowa this week and stops with five presidential candidates showed that even though some are lamenting the 2008 race's early start, the Hawkeye State is basking in the attention from White House hopefuls.

"History says you've got to come to Iowa for your first shot," said Democratic state Sen. Eugene Fraise, who hosted a barbecue Monday at his farm in Fort Madison for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York.

"They can do that without spending a whole lot of money. They've got to spend some time like this, come to my farm," Fraise said.

"We used to say, 'We're not going to vote for them if they don't sit down at our table and have coffee,' " he added with a hearty laugh.

Even in the age of Internet campaign announcements, Web chats and virtual primaries, Iowa voters still expect opportunities to rub elbows with all the candidates before next January's caucus.

"Everybody wants to see each candidate, everybody wants to personally talk to each candidate. That's been a tradition in Iowa," said Lee County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Larkin, who came out to eat and mingle with other activists and listen to Clinton.

"You circle around, you kick the tires, look each candidate over and then you make your decision."

After former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, officially announced his candidacy Wednesday in Clive, the roughly 250 party faithful who attended the event were treated to a free lunch of sub sandwiches and chips, and, of course, some face time with the candidate.

"Tommy Thompson has been the most aggressive candidate in Iowa so far," said Don McDowell, who came out to hear the presidential hopeful. "It's not a three-man race on the Republican side, it's still fairly wide open. ... Conservatives in Iowa are still searching for their candidate."

Despite tornado threats, soaking rain and bone-chilling winds, most of the presidential candidates made their way through Iowa over the last week.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his heavy media contingent literally stopped traffic on a busy thoroughfare Tuesday in Cedar Rapids. "Don't jaywalk!" the GOP candidate admonished the photographers and reporters bobbing and weaving between cars.

Comfortable about being courted

Iowa voters are so used to seeing the pols, many aren't intimidated by their presence.

On Giuliani's tour through a neighborhood he said reminded him of Queens, one resident barreled past the cameras and asked, "Can I ask you a question? What are you going to do about Iraq?" Once Giuliani finished, the man continued, "Now what about Iran?"

After arriving for a breakfast meet-and-greet Tuesday at the home of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack in Mount Pleasant, Clinton was mobbed by activists not only looking to shake her hand but to question her on such topics as the War Powers Act -- all before they went to work.

During the senator's remarks, one woman seated behind Clinton had to leave. Instead of gingerly tiptoeing out, she just got up, said good-bye to Vilsack, brushed past the candidate and left.

"We're courted very well, and we like it," said Lee County Auditor Anne Pedersen.

As for the candidates, they don't seem to mind lavishing special attention on Iowans given the state's first-in-the-nation status.

"We are unbelievably glad to be back in Iowa," Elizabeth Edwards told a Cedar Rapids crowd before introducing her husband, John, the Democratic candidate and former senator from North Carolina. "We want to thank you for paying attention to what the candidates actually have to say about where we're going to go, and you know what, the nation ought to be thanking you."

GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Wednesday in Des Moines: "There's nothing that compares with the one-on-one meetings you have with the people in Iowa. I think the nation as a whole will pay more attention to what's happening in these early states to get a sense of the character and vision of the people who are running for office."

Candidates ignore Iowa at own peril

The political reality of the frontloaded 2008 primary schedule is harsh -- the nominee for each party probably will be known by the evening of February 5. Candidates who stumble in Iowa, which holds its caucus on January 14, could be setting themselves up for failure.

"Somebody will come out of Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire with an awful lot of momentum," John Edwards said. "I think it's going to be difficult to win the nomination if you don't do well in the early states."

But doing well in those states also will cost this cycle's presidential candidates more than ever before -- as evidenced by the record-setting fundraising totals in the first quarter.

But some Iowa activists fear the race for cash could force candidates to stay out of their state.

"With the primaries being frontloaded, it turns into more of a media event after Iowa," said Larkin, the Lee County Democratic Party chairman. "They may not have as much time to spend in Iowa because they got to be out raising money to make sure they got enough to go on after Iowa."


Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani crosses the street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa Tuesday with media in tow.

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