COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Lois Vanderbur drove 30 miles from her home in Mapleton to attend Herman Cain's event Monday in Denison. When the event was over, she went to eat at a nearby McDonald's, where I overheard her tell her friend Rose Wolden: "Obama was an hour late for his speech and promised to raise taxes, and then the Dow fell 550 points."
Mrs. Vanderbur, 68, is a very well-informed grandmother. When I asked her about the stock market tumble, she whipped out her iPhone, called up the latest numbers and told me that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had, in fact, closed at 10,809.85 for a one-day loss of 634.67 points. Forget all that stereotypical talk about Iowans being a bunch of ignorant hicks from flyover country. Their state's most famous product is still corn -- and the cornfields here are better measured by the square mile than by the acre -- but the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses have made politics at least the state's second-most important export, and few Americans are more civic-minded than a politically active Iowan.
Mrs. Vanderbur and Mrs. Wolden were among more than 60 area residents who crowded into Cronk's Café in downtown Denison for Cain's mid-afternoon event, the second stop on his statewide "Common Sense Solutions" bus tour. The overflow audience heard Cain rip into President Obama's response to the recent Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. national debt. "Today, the president, Senator [John] Kerry and other Democrats now want to blame somebody for the credit downgrade -- other than themselves," Cain said. "They control the Senate. They control the White House. Obama's Treasury secretary [Tim Geithner] is in charge of the Treasury. Now they are trying to blame the Tea Party movement for the downgrade. How pathetic is that? That's not leadership, folks -- that's not leadership."
The Denison crowd responded enthusiastically to Cain's message, as had his audience during a luncheon speech in Sioux City hosted by the local Republican Jewish Coalition. At that event, which also drew more than 60 attendees, Cain explained his objections to the 2010 Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act -- best known by the names of its two Democrat sponsors, Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank -- and then added: "Here's two other problems I have with the Dodd-Frank bill -- Dodd and Frank."
That line got a huge laugh from the GOP audience, but Cain's criticism of the administration's economic policy is serious -- and taken seriously by Republicans like Mrs. Vanderbur. "I have followed Herman Cain since he was president of Godfather's Pizza, because I live in an investment family," she said. "We are very conservative. We invest money in the stock market. We're very active in keeping track of what's going on worldwide, and Herman Cain seems to offer what we need at the present time." She explained that, in 2008, she supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the GOP primary campaign. "I'd say Herman Cain is probably capable just like Mitt Romney, and [Cain] doesn't have the baggage of the health care policy that [Romney] had in Massachusetts. Previous to that [in 2000], I went to the Ames straw poll for Steve Forbes, so that tells you where my mind goes.… We need somebody in Washington, D.C. that understands the bottom line."
The bottom line in Iowa this week is a Thursday debate that will be televised on Fox News and Saturday's straw poll in Ames, where few observers expect Cain to finish better than fifth place. One well-placed Iowa Republican operative said Monday that he expects the three top finishers at Ames to be Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, although not necessarily in that order.
The results at Ames may be somewhat overshadowed by Saturday's expected announcement by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that he will join the GOP 2012 presidential field. Yet if Perry does enter the race, he'll enter at least six months behind many of the other contestants, who have been criss-crossing Iowa with feverish intensity in recent weeks. Cain's Iowa bus tour marks his 26th visit to the state this year and -- as an indicator of how heavily candidates like Bachmann and Pawlenty have been campaigning here -- some have complained that Cain hasn't been to Iowa often enough. But the candidate and his staff were encouraged by what they saw during their first day of the bus tour, which ended with a rally at Bayliss Park in downtown Council Bluffs.
More than 120 people turned out for the event. Local GOP chairman Jeff Jorgensen has endorsed Cain and vowed to bring at least one bus-load -- and possibly two bus-loads -- of supporters to Ames. One reporter who had been present for Bachmann's noon rally the same day in the same park said Cain's crowd was actually slightly larger than hers, which is remarkable considering that she has advertised on TV throughout the state.
"This is just an indication of the enthusiasm and the support we have here in the state of Iowa," Cain said after the Council Bluffs rally, where nearly every attendee sought him out to shake his hand and have their photos taken with him. "People who have never been to Iowa, they can't understand what's happening.… We believe that our support here in Iowa is about as solid as we can get, so we're thrilled with the turnout we had here today."
With those words, he waved good-bye and boarded the bus that will carry him all the way to Ames on Saturday.
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