DES MOINES, Iowa – When Democrat Howard Dean (search) walks into Cresco High School in Iowa's rural Howard County Wednesday night, he will have reached a political milestone — campaign stops in each of the state's 99 counties.
That type of on-the-road politicking is crucial in the first caucus state, in which the White House hopefuls have to persuade thousands of voters to come out on a winter's night Jan. 19, attend a two-hour neighborhood meeting and then publicly declare their preference for a candidate.
Dick Gephardt (search) visited all 99 counties in 1988 and won Iowa's caucuses, the highlight of the Missouri congressman's unsuccessful presidential bid. This election, Dean set about to visit every county, and his appearance in Howard County will mark that achievement.
Dean and Gephardt stand atop polls in Iowa. In recent weeks, Gephardt has directed much of his criticism at the front-runner, linking him to Republicans in the 1990s who tried to limit spending on Medicare.
House parties and one-on-one meetings typical of Iowa campaigning give candidates a chance to answer that criticism and argue their case — as Dean found out recently when questioned about Medicare.
"When you're standing in a living room looking somebody in the eye, you can convince them," the former Vermont governor said Tuesday. "We had that person by the end of the meeting."
Once a candidate has made that kind of personal connection, they sometimes can head off criticism down the road.
"If you hear something negative about someone and they've been in your living room and talked to your grandmother, you are likely to not believe it," said former Iowa Republican Chairman Richard Schwarm. "If you've built that personal tie, if you like someone, you'll excuse a lot."
The Dean campaign is touting Wednesday's event as "Howard and Howard," the candidate in the county located in the northeast corner of the state, about 10 miles south of the Minnesota border. The county has 1,542 registered Republicans and 1,983 registered Democrats. Cresco, with a population just under 4,000, is the largest town.