WASHINGTON – Talk about audacity.
There they stand, anointed by no one, eight Democrats who think they have what it takes to be president, each saying, "Choose me." They stand where George W. Bush stood four years ago, showing the same nerve, asking Americans to take the same leap of faith.
American voters are audacious, too. Not only do they pick their president, they insist on picking who gets to run for president from the two big parties, making them rare birds in the world's menagerie of representative governments.
The chattering ritual of American democracy begins anew Monday as Iowans, in private homes and public buildings, hold caucuses and cast the first votes that count in the 2004 presidential election.
The ritual begins in small rural states, refuges from the acid cynicism that surrounds politics in America.
The people who want to run this high-tech, Internet-wired, suburb-packed, terrorist-threatened, bumper-to-bumper country find themselves taking positions on the Iraq war one minute and hog waste lagoons the next, and pitching it face to face to a pig farmer or his offended neighbor.
Yet millions of Americans grouse about the choices — say there is no choice, really.
They don't see the distinctions on the issues. They look at candidates — one election after another — and see solid men with no flash, or flashy men who must have a screw loose somewhere.
They wonder whether their vote matters, whether it will be counted if they even cast it, and what else is on TV.
Some of the Constitution's framers were cynics, too. But together, they gave the generations after them their marching orders. On Monday, Iowans were prepared to march.
First, they listened — to the candidates, to the neighbors lobbying them, to the out-of-state people who came to their homes. The Iowa campaign takes politics down to the most intimate level.
Thomas W. Kepler, 58, opened the door of his Newton home to a blast of cold air and greetings from Dino Esemplare and John Palumbo, union activists from New York campaigning for Dick Gephardt (search). Kepler invited them into his basement family room, where they talked for 30 minutes, even after he made it clear he was supporting John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran.
"Brother, I wish you weren't voting against Brother Gephardt but you fought ... for the right to do what you wish," Esemplare said, setting down his coffee and rising to leave. "God bless you, sir, for voting. God bless you for fighting for my right to vote."
In New Hampshire, up next, one candidate's courtship of one voter played out over a full day that spilled into a foggy night.
Roberto Fuentes, 19, must not have heard all the ways American democracy has been trashed over the centuries. He showed up at a Kerry event inclined to vote for Howard Dean (search), and Kerry's people invited him on their bus.
"We're going to take a minute," Kerry said, strolling back to talk to the young man. That minute turned into a 40-minute discussion of foreign policy, education and health care, ending at 10:45 p.m., with Fuentes — who was no easy sell — finally on Kerry's side.
Myriad encounters like that involving one candidate after another are the standard this early in the ritual. Fifty people from Philadelphia piled into a bus Friday to drive to Iowa and fan out for Dean. John Edwards kissed a baby, pleasing the parent but leaving the child looking terrified.
Such moments are soon to be overwhelmed by mass means of communication as the politicians spread across the country and mount even heavier assaults on the air waves.
For now, it's up to the Iowans to honor the spirit of the Founding Fathers, who set in motion a form of self-government that others in the world have emulated, shaped to their own circumstances and died to achieve.
Not that the framers thought everything would turn out swell.
"Remember, democracy never lasts long," wrote President John Adams (search), one of them. "It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
To be sure, the Constitution shunted women aside and treated slaves as three-fifths of a white person. It took a Civil War to purge the document of that mistake and determine, as Abraham Lincoln said, whether this nation "or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
And this "more perfect union" still stumbles. For one thing, elections are held in which the candidate with fewer votes becomes the winner.
Mario Cuomo, former New York governor, has a forthcoming book looking on how Lincoln might address the issues of today. As Cuomo sees it, the Constitution did not set that high a standard, but Lincoln raised the bar and presidents of both parties have continued to do so in one way or another.
"We are still what Lincoln called an unfinished work," he said in an interview. And each election is about moving closer to "that more noble view of ourselves."
Rising new democracies tend not to buy the U.S. model as a piece. They take basic principles — a government that guarantees basic liberties, is accountable and offers citizens opportunity to shape policy — and tailor them.
"Those are the elements of our democracy that are getting replicated," Cuomo said. No one knows how the details might play out in the complexities of, say, Afghan tribal politics.
Right now, figuring out the complexities of the Iowa caucus system is challenge enough.