DES MOINES, Iowa – The major presidential campaigns are flooding Iowa with hundreds of field staffers, and there is at least some concern that those operatives could show up for the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses and distort the outcome of the opening test of the presidential nominating season.
The caucuses — neighborhood meetings at which Iowans discuss and then decide which presidential candidates to support — are the traditional start to the process of whittling down the field of candidates. Other states hold primary elections later in the year, and the parties will name their official candidates by September, with the general election in November.
Spokesmen for the leading campaigns reject the suggestion that out-of-state staffers could influence the Iowa outcome, saying there are strict rules banning operatives brought into the state from actually participating in caucuses.
They note that the number of operatives potentially involved is far too small to have an impact on the outcome of caucuses, which are likely to be settled by estimated 150,000 people on the Democratic side and over 80,000 on the Republican side.
Most of the concern comes on the Democratic race, where — unlike the Republicans — the rules governing who can participate in a caucus technically include recent residents who may leave the state immediately afterward.
With the Democratic caucus contest very tight in most polls, the rival campaigns are keeping a close eye on what the others are doing and some provided The Associated Press with lists of campaign staffers registered to vote in Iowa in the various campaigns.
One campaign listing showed that 51 of the 115 people on the staff of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Iowa campaign are registered to vote in the state, and that 91 of the 131 people working for John Edwards in the state are registered to vote in Iowa.
Another listing showed that 42 staffers working for Barack Obama's campaign have registered to vote in the state, many in the last six months or so.
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor moved here to work on the campaign and is one of the Obama operatives who has registered to vote in Iowa. But Vietor said he and other Obama operatives who moved in from out-of-state to work on the campaign will not go to the precinct caucuses.
"We're pleased that so many talented people are working so hard and volunteering their time to elect Barack Obama, but it is our policy that employees and volunteers who moved to Iowa expressly to work on our campaign do not caucus," said Vietor.
Vietor said he did vote in a school board election in Des Moines, casting a ballot for Patty Link, wife of veteran Democratic operative Jeff Link. Ironically, Jeff Link is aligned with Edwards.
The issue has surfaced before, and comes because Republicans and Democrats run their precinct caucuses differently and, unlike a traditional election, they are governed strictly by the political parties.
On the Republican side, there are more restrictions. Local party officials running caucuses in each of the state's more than 1,780 precincts will get a list of registered Republicans who live in that precinct. Those who show up for a caucus who are not on the list can register to vote on the spot, but they will have to show some form of proof they actually live there.
"If you're not on a voter file for that precinct, you'd better have a driver's license or a utility bill," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Things work differently on the Democratic side. In each precinct, local officials will have a list of registered Democrats in that precinct. Those who show up and aren't on the list can register to vote by asserting that they live in the precinct and sign a voter registration form.
Technically, a campaign staffer who moved to Iowa a few months ago to work for a campaign and is not breaking the law by attending a precinct caucus, even if the staffer plans to move on the morning of Jan. 4.
"It breaks the spirit of the law," said Carrie Giddins, spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party. "The spirit of the law is really what drives the Iowa caucuses."
And that "spirit" is that those showing up for precinct caucuses were living in the precinct prior to caucus day and will continue to do so afterward, she said.
The major campaigns have pledged to live up to that spirit.
"Our campaign pledges to Iowa Democrats to follow the spirit and letter of Iowa state law and the Iowa Democratic Party rules governing the conduct of the caucuses," Vietor said.
Clinton spokesman Mark Daley issued a similar statement.
"The Iowa caucuses should belong to Iowans," said Daley. "While we would never do anything to disenfranchise the many Iowans who are working and volunteering on our campaign, it's our long-standing policy that any staffer or volunteer who has come to Iowa for the sole purpose of working on the campaign should not be allowed to caucus."