CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet’s name cannot be found on the list of candidates contending on Monday for votes at Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses. But he is the star of this campaign season.
Everywhere Bartlet goes in Iowa, he draws the biggest crowds. When he steps onto a stage, people start chanting “Bartlet.” Reporters hang on his every word. Children ask for his autograph. Adults want to know his thoughts about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and religion in politics.
Bartlet is, in every sense, the man of the moment.
Unfortunately, he is also a fiction.
“President Bartlet is a fantasy,” explains actor Martin Sheen, who plays the character on the NBC political drama, “The West Wing.” “Howard Dean is a reality.”
Sheen is an enthusiastic supporter of the former Vermont governor, who is locked in a tight four-way contest going into Monday’s caucuses with former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll, released Saturday morning, has Kerry with 23 percent, Dean with 22 percent, Gephardt with 19 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. That represents a slight drop for Kerry from the previous day’s polling, no movement for Gaphardt and last-minute surges for Dean and Edwards.
Dean will try to improve his position Sunday, with a quick trip to Plains, Georgia, where he is scheduled to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter. Getting a blessing from the man who put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he scored an upset win here in 1976 –and who remains popular in the first-caucus state–is seen by Dean strategists as an extension of their Iowa campaigning. They hope to get a bounce on Monday, when pictures of Dean and Carter will, undoubtedly, be splashed across the front pages of caucus-day newspapers.
But Dean may end up getting just as much of a bounce from another “president.”
As the caucuses approached, “West Wing’s” Sheen left sunny southern California for snowy Sioux Falls, Mason City and Davenport, where he campaigned almost as vigorously as the candidate himself.
In Iowa, where campaigns that could be made or broken by Monday’s voting are pulling out all the stops, celebrity backers are turning up even in the smallest towns. The candidates hope that a little star power will sway wavering Democrats in their direction.
The fast-finishing campaign of John Kerry dispatched songwriter Carole King to make the pitch for him in a Dubuque coffeehouse and an Indianola living room, where she autographed albums, played “You’ve Got a Friend” on the host family’s piano and exclaimed that, “The beauty of this, for me, is coming into a real American town meeting.” Dennis Kucinich campaigned across the state last year with country singer Willie Nelson and will close his pre-caucus campaigning by taking the stage Sunday night with a singer half Nelson’s age, Ani DiFranco, in Des Moines. Even Dick Gephardt has been appearing in the closing days of the campaign with a “star” suitable to the labor-backed candidate’s union hall rallies, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., the son of legendary labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.