LISBON, Iowa – The Democratic presidential candidates may have ceased their negative ads, but behind the scenes the race is getting nastier, particularly between the Howard Dean (search) and John Kerry (search) campaigns.
Political experts know to look for heavy-handed tactics from a campaign in the final hours of a presidential primary or caucus. When they occur, few outsiders get to watch. But one got caught on video tape in Iowa last week, and it helps to illustrate just how close this race has gotten.
On Thursday night at about 7 p.m. in Lisbon Iowa, Dick Stater and his wife Suzette Astley — a volunteer coordinator for Dean for America — were at home being interviewed by Richard Hoefer, a Dean supporter, who is making a documentary about the former Vermont governor's campaign. Also in the room was Susan Alexander, a neighbor and Suzette's friend, who came over to be filmed for the documentary.
As the camera rolled, they received a 17-minute phone call from Jacob Thomas. Thomas identified himself as a volunteer for the Kerry campaign in Cedar Rapids who was conducting voter identification calls. Alexander said she received a similar call earlier in the evening
Thomas, the Kerry volunteer caller, told Fox News he is a 19-year-old volunteer and that he remembered the call well. During the call, the documentary camera recorded Suzette Astley's side of the conversation. As a Dean volunteer coordinator, she was clearly aware that the call she was receiving was potentially inappropriate and she methodically wrote everything down.
When asked on the call, Astley identified herself as a Dean supporter, whereupon she said Thomas began to say negative, misleading and occasionally "false things about Dr Dean."
Astley said Thomas called Dean an "environmental racist." At this point she is heard on the tape saying "Does Senator Kerry know you are saying these things?" She then asked to speak to his supervisor.
Astley said supervisor "Derek" accused her of lying about the tone of her conversation with Thomas. When Astley challenged him on the "environmental racist" remark, she said Derek complained that Dean supporters "just don't seem to care about the facts."
Thomas does not deny his call or dispute Astley's description of how his supervisor participated.
Thomas confirmed that he tried to persuade Astley to change her views of Dean and he expressed some pride in his efforts to Fox News.
"I was a high school debater, so I like to go through the facts," Thomas said, adding that it was a a routine call. "I was going down my random list. Sometimes when I get a Dean or Gephardt supporter on the phone it turns out a lot of the time they don't know the issues."
But Thomas said he would have handled the call differently had he known who Astley was. "I had no idea she was a volunteer coordinator for Dean, If I had I would have hung up right away," he said.
Perhaps he should have.
Astley, as the Dean volunteer coordinator in Lisbon, immediately began to grill him and got a vast amount of information as the cameras rolled — name, phone numbers, supervisors and Kerry campaign staff members. As an activist, Astley said she recognized several of the names and knew them to be Kerry supporters from the community.
When Fox News asked Thomas specifically about calling Dean an "environmental racist" Thomas first denied it. But he then admitted that he may have told Astley that experts have described Dean as one.
The Kerry campaign has attacked Dean's support for storing radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain (search). Dean's critics have called him an "environmental racist" for his Yucca Mountain position.
Astley said her husband Dick contacted Daneille Black, the regional Kerry coordinator near Lisbon, to complain. Dick Stater told Fox News he got a "luke warm apology that sounded like they were most sorry they got caught".
Astley e-mailed the Kerry campaign the next day to complain about the call. Campaigns accused of having a heavy hand — in this case, Kerry's — always publicly condemn such tactics and they often end up being the work of enthusiastic campaign volunteers who are just too enthusiastic.
The Dean campaign said there have been several complaints from Lisbon and elsewhere in Iowa that pro-Kerry calls are rude and insulting to Dean.
"This is exactly the kind of politics that people are sick of, Washington insider hypocrisy, John Kerry pretends to decry negative politics and he's push polling filth. He should be ashamed of himself and Iowans will reject it," said Dean campaign spokesman Jay Carson.
The Kerry campaign has verified that Thomas is a volunteer for them. Campaign officials said they say they do not condone nor instruct callers to take such aggressive tactics.
Senior Kerry aides said Thomas is a student at Amherst College (search), an elite liberal arts college in Kerry's native Massachusetts. They said he feels very strongly about the environment and was merely doing what he thought he was supposed to do, but that he acted overzealously. They said the former high school debater now fears the consequences of this controversy. Thomas' mother said he is a good boy and should not get into trouble for volunteering.