AL GORE knows pigs. That is among the messages that the vice president's newly-tweaked campaign is trying to instill in Iowa caucus-goers. It's the kind of strategy that very well could get him elected president.
Iowa voters will head to their local caucuses Monday night in the nation's first real test of the presidential hopefuls. At first glance, the caucus seems like a poor indicator of how well the candidates will do nationally. Unlike much of America, Iowa is not a racially diverse state. Voters in Iowa focus primarily on issues related to agriculture, which are viewed with less importance in big-game states such as California, New York and Texas. Finally, a caucus is a more participatory, time-consuming affair than a simple primary, and is likely to attract more hardcore political supporters than it does average citizens.
But this time around, the caucus could be very telling. Caucus results will indicate which strategies are working the best, and a candidate's ability to win Iowa will indicate a strategy that can win the country. All major candidates have been criscrossing the state, heating the campaign up just as the Midwest heads into its January deep freeze.
Former New Jersey senator and Democratic contender Bill Bradley has been running a campaign of "big ideas," focusing primarily on universal health care coverage. But Bradley's strategy - proposing big plans and committing himself to accomplishing them - isn't playing as well as he hoped. Voters in Iowa - much like voters elsewhere - aren't too concerned with big ideas that will require big-time effort to produce. They're more concerned with ideas that are smaller on a national scale, but loom large in their communities, such as helping a troubled farm economy.
Al Gore is stepping up with some answers. Gore's carefully crafted campaign depicts him as the farm candidate. Gore converses with farmers about the minutiae of hog lots and commodity prices. Gore uses debate answer sessions as sound bytes, incorporating area farmers, mothers and businesspeople in his responses. Gore trots out a New Jersey farmer who rails against Bradley for his failure to stand up for farmers in his home state. Gore is playing local politics, and it's a sound strategy.
If Gore can adjust his strategy for the different regions he campaigns in - and if he can unite those strategies around common themes - we might as well sign off on the Democratic nomination. Bradley is telling Americans what he wants to try to do for America, and some voters are wondering if he can get it done. Gore is telling Americans what he'll do for each of them, in their own areas. He doesn't have all the details worked out as to how he'll deliver, but he's making all the right promises.
The trick for Gore is to master the issues that matter in certain regions. He'll have to become the farm candidate in the rural Midwest, the labor candidate in industrial cities, the entitlement candidate in poor urban areas, the ranch candidate in the West, and on and on. He'll have to keep his campaign focused, aggressive and working as a team, which is no small task for a campaign staff plagued by internal problems from the start.
But Gore is getting the job done in Iowa. In campaign appearances and speeches throughout the state, Gore has spoken at the level of his audience and on the issues they want to hear. Bradley has begun to sound redundant, and in debates the Senator looks as though he's sick and tired of trying to explain the same concepts to the same people.
Republicans are going to have a harder time mastering a Gore-like strategy, and it might show in the Iowa caucus results, with fringe, issue-oriented candidates such as Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer winning moral victories. Candidates such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and publisher Steve Forbes all tout tax cuts among their central themes. But cutting taxes isn't necessarily a priority in a state where farmers are looking for increased subsidies or other forms of federally-funded relief. That snag is likely to recur in different guises nationwide, as Republicans tout tax cuts to a public that is more concerned with saving their own entitlements, expanding health care coverage and lowering pharmacy costs.
Politics is local. It's "what are you going to do for me now?" Al Gore is making big promises, promises tailored to each regional audience. He might not have all the answers. He might not have a plan for delivering on his promises. But the one thing he does have is a winning strategy.
(Tom Bednar is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)