05/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iowa Republican Change Candidate

Last week over lunch with someone who works at a local college, the woman confessed to me that she was not going to the polls in November. A Clinton supporter, she couldn't bring herself to vote for Obama. Now this woman is neither poor, uneducated or Appalachian. However, she is one of many people I"ve met on the campaign trail who aver that they will not be reconciled to "the other Democrat." Among Obama supporters, this intransigence was best expressed by the man at the rally in North Carolina who told me that he and five of his friends "were ready to start a revolution" if Obama didn't get the nomination. So the party and the pundits can say all they want that Democrats will come together in the fall; however, from talking to people on the trail, I just don't see that happening.

Assuming Senator Obama gets the nomination, some Clinton supporters will be reconciled. But the question is--how many? What is the percentage for mulishness that the Obama Campaign needs to factor into a strategy for winning electoral votes? Conversely, what is the percentage of Republicans who, disheartened in their party for different reasons, will not make it to the polls? Nobody knows the answers, but Deb Satern, the GOP chair in Emmet County, Iowa, talks about the conundrum as well as anybody I've heard.

Over (another) lunch, I asked her how she thought Iowa would play in the general election. She shrugged and laughed, saying, "It's three-way ping pong. Don't like Obama, vote McCain. Don't like McCain, go Clinton." Despite this muddled state of affairs, Deb herself is running for office, for the 7th district seat in the state house of representatives. "My mother told me she's worried about my running this year," Deb said, "because it's the Democrats' time." (Deb's mother, a life-long Democrat, isn't worried enough, however, to promise to vote for her.)

But really it's Deb's time, too, because she's just the kind of take-charge change agent, working to make things happen from the ground up, that Senator Obama has been talking about. While we were talking, she was simultaneously finding an Epi-pen source for a young man with a life-threatening food allergy who couldn't afford the prescription. Deb had just met the guy next door in Starbucks--he wasn't even a possible constituent--but she was trying to help him.

Deb's answer to her mother is that it's okay if she loses because "there'll be something in the experience of running that I'm supposed to learn." But if elected, she wants to help people back home in Estherville, Emmet County, learn how things work down in Des Moines. "Our town has had some troubles," she said, "but you just have to put in your two cents and go to work." Apparently, a lot of folks in Emmet have been putting theirs in and going to work. Deb's been amazed at the turn-out for local meetings and the level of volunteering. "There've been people coming forward, interested in politics--never even saw them come out before." Deb hopes to build on this enthusiasm to get the county better roads ("all the improvements are down around Des Moines") and jobs. "Why are those ethanol and bio-fuel plants in other counties and not ours?"

The level of involvement among Emmet Republicans may have a lot to do with Deb's personality and natural leadership, because Republicans elsewhere in Iowa are not so sanguine. "The Iowa Republicans seem demoralized at the moment," according to David Redlawsk at the University of Iowa. (I wrote about Professor Redlawsk's caucus last January and in the interest of full disclosure point out that Redlawsk is an Edwards delegate.) Redlawsk mentions the indisputable fact that Democrats have taken control of the state house and senate and have kept the governor's office. "And it looks like Republicans will not have strong candidates against Harkin or Braley, and marginal against Loebsack--even Boswell looks reasonably safe if he gets through his primary."

On the level of the national election, Mitch Hambleton, the Dallas County, Iowa Republican Central Committee Chairman, puts it another way. "Iowa had a very spirited caucus. The candidate chosen by many die-hard Republicans did not make it through the nominating process. The McCain campaign now has the challenge to inspire those folks to help elect John McCain in November. That will be no small challenge." Indeed the Huckabee voters are other players in Deb Satern's ping pong.

Mitch Hambleton goes on to say, "Probably the biggest thing that Iowans are faced with today is the price at the pump. With gasoline nearing $4 per gallon, the increased costs are infringing in their lives. Personally, I believe that the sales tax holiday proposed is much like peeing your pants on a cold winter day. It feels nice and warm for a little while, but very soon begins to feel quite cold. Given the tough winter that the Midwest has endured the past few months, our road infrastructure is in dire need of repair, the funding source being taxes on fuel.

"I think that John McCain offers a very strong defense and foreign policy experience and wisdom. With Senator Obama the presumptive nominee, the Republicans will be challenged to define exactly who Barack Obama is. I hear that he stands for 'hope.' 'Hope' for what, I'm not so sure."

Both hope and change are large words. But this is indeed a hope and change election, and Democrats don't have a patent on either. So many Americans want change--big change--and in ways that go beyond policies and issues--that Senator Obama is likely to find Iowa's electoral votes come November. But there will be Republicans like Deb Satern who have responded to the shift in the country's mood, as well. Change, however, by its very nature is inchoate. A leader can only try to use it, to ride its energy; he or she cannot control it. And that will be the challenge for Senators McCain and Obama, whoever wins in November.