Beginning in April, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will convene and moderate monthly public forums featuring each of the announced Democratic presidential candidates with the intent of allowing his home-state voters to examine the candidates individually before making their choice in the state’s all-important caucuses on Jan. 19, 2004.
Tentatively dubbed “Hear from the Heartland,” the forums will be held in various locations across the state and serve a dual purpose, according to Harkin.
“I want people in Iowa to hear from the candidates, but I also want the candidates to hear from them,” Harkin said.
“So long as we are first in the nation, I believe my constituents in Iowa ought to have some input into framing the issues and the message” that Democrats carry into the 2004 election, he added.
Harkin said he has mentioned the idea to Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) as well as Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), and expects all of them to participate.
“They all seemed to be grateful and enthusiastic,” Harkin said.
The Iowa Senator will meet today with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and plans to broach the subject. The Rev. Al Sharpton has not yet requested a meeting with Harkin.
The order of the candidates’ appearances will be determined by putting “all the names in a hat” and conducting a random draw, Harkin said.
Harkin’s influence in the Hawkeye State’s caucus process is not to be understated, particularly given the fact that he currently serves with four of the candidates and spent eight years in the House with Gephardt.
He did not rule out the possibility of endorsing a candidate during an interview Tuesday, although he maintained he was not focused on putting his weight behind anyone at this point.
“My job is to welcome them and let them make their case,” Harkin said.
First elected in 1984, Harkin has beaten back re-election challenges from three sitting Republican House Members, including former Rep. Greg Ganske in 2002.
Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards all donated to Harkin’s 2002 campaign from their respective leadership political action committees.
Harkin is also seen as something of a hero in the progressive community and is one of the leading liberal voices in the Senate.
In 2000, Harkin endorsed Vice President Al Gore early on and Harkin’s strong backing helped Gore score a convincing 63 percent victory over former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in the Iowa caucuses.
In 1992, Harkin made a presidential run of his own, carrying his home state caucus with 77 percent, but he dropped out in early March. Harkin eventually endorsed Bill Clinton in that campaign.
The idea of these forums grew out of Harkin’s desire to “utilize my position as a leader of the party, with the resources I have, to be an honest broker,” he said.
Harkin said several of the presidential candidates had approached him seeking his mailing list (“the best list of anyone in the state of Iowa,” according to the Senator) but “I don’t feel like I should do that.”
This is the first time Harkin has held such presidential forums, according to Jeff Link, who is organizing the events.
“Tom felt that this would be the best way for him to help the process along by bringing together Iowans that were helpful to him in getting re-elected to a fourth term with these candidates,” said Link.
Harkin chose to host each candidate individually to avoid a “cattle call.”
“They will have plenty of time and an audience to themselves,” he said.
The agenda for each forum will be largely determined by the individual presidential candidate.
Harkin will open the sessions with a few words on topics ranging from health care to the economy, then turn the floor over to the candidate.
Following the candidate’s presentation, Harkin will moderate a question-and-answer period at each event, which he said will be held in “good media markets” around the state.
The format is particularly suited to the political environment of a state where “you don’t win with TV ads,” according to Link.
“The way to be successful in the caucuses is to reach out person-to-person and convince people you have the best ideas,” Link added.
These “neutral site” meet and greets with the candidates will take the pressure off potential voters to commit to a candidate before hearing each of them out, Link noted.
“People don’t have any compunction about showing up to these events and they don’t feel compelled to sign up with anyone,” he explained. “They might feel a little more inhibited to go to a breakfast” hosted by a specific candidate, he added.
The audiences will be made up of “Democrats who are likely to attend their precinct caucuses next January,” as well as party leaders and local elected officials, Link said.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), an oft-mentioned vice presidential candidate, and Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) will be invited to the forums but will not play an active role.
Harkin predicted the forums will be “very well attended,” saying a minimum of 100 to 200 people will be in the audience.
Harkin will pay for the expenses of each forum through his leadership PAC, so the cost for each candidate will be minimal.
“The candidates don’t have to do anything but show up,” he said.