DUBUQUE, Iowa -- "Those guys are evil," the husband said, screwing up his face, while his wife frowned but nodded in agreement. "Anybody who came against them -- they were just destroyed."
To my conservative ears, it sounded like they were talking about the Clintons, but these were two hard-core Democrats who had just attended a Barack Obama town hall on the banks of the Mississippi, and they were railing against George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
But I couldn't help myself. "Did you see what Hillary's campaign chairman in New Hampshire said?" I asked, breaking my rule of not suggesting topics or issues to voters.
He winced. At first his wife look confused, but then she remembered. "Oh, that was ugly," she said. I was referring to the AP report that Bill Shaheen, Hillary's New Hampshire campaign chairman, had said Obama would be a liability as the nominee because of "Republican dirty tricks."
"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" Sheehan warned.
This couple (they didn't want to be named, and so I'll call them Mr. and Mrs. Dubuque), were typical of the Democrats I talked to across the Hawkeye State last week. They were generally happy with all three of their party's front runners and determined to beat the Republicans. Mr. Dubuque had settled on Obama, but his wife was undecided, between Obama and John Edwards.
They weren't Clinton haters -- both of them liked her Senate record and would be happy to support her in November -- but it was clear to them Shaheen's comments, while couched as a fear of Republican dirty tricks, were a smear, and one typical of Hillary. The idea that she wasn't at all behind it was not credible to them.
Before I brought up Shaheen's comments, Mrs. Dubuque said she wouldn't caucus for Clinton. "Hillary's more of the same-old," she told me. "Everything's so ugly in Washington. We need a change, and I don't think Hillary is it."
IN DES MOINES at an Edwards event, another undecided Democrat said Hillary was too harsh, and this was even before Shaheen's comments had hit the Internet. "She's divisive," he said, "and that's the last thing we need right now."
But, clearly, it wasn't exactly the divisiveness he minded. After all, he had just spent an hour heartily cheering Edwards's barbs at corporate America, the Bush administration, and the religious Right.
What so many Iowa Democrats objected to was dirtiness. To them, the last seven years have been a horrible onslaught of Machiavellian dirty tricks. Max Cleland was painted as unpatriotic, John Kerry was swiftboated, John McCain was smeared, Valerie Plame was knee-capped, and even Dan Rather was framed.
Machiavellian is now a mild slur compared to Rovian.
And Hillary is more of the same. The Shaheen stunt surprised no one. That night, Clinton's lobbyist/senior campaign adviser Mark Penn went on Hardball, and amid expressing "disappointment" in Obama's negativity, went out of his way to refer to Obama's "cocaine use."
As chronicled in the columns of my editor, Bob Novak, Hillary's campaign has spent six months warning undecided top Democrats that they shouldn't get behind Obama because he has some real black marks on his past that could come out and sink him. Of course, the Clinton campaign was too high-minded to drag this dirt into the public, but they just wanted to save these Democratic operatives from embarrassment.
ALL OF THIS underhanded mudslinging is hurting Hillary in Iowa far more than it is hurting Barack. It's not that Democrats are coming around to seeing Hillary the same way much of the Right does -- Mr. and Mrs. Dubuque probably don't think she knocked off Vince Foster. But they just see her as nasty and dirty. That might not matter elsewhere, but this is Iowa.
People in the Midwest are nice, and they expect others to be nice. Remember in 2002, when the national Democratic Party turned Paul Wellstone's funeral into a pep rally for Walter Mondale, Wellstone's substitute in the Minnesota Senate race? That backfired, and the Republicans won. The same tactic would have worked in New York or Washington, D.C., but nastiness doesn't play in the heartland.
Beltway Democrats and big city liberals might appreciate Hillary's ankle-biting tactics and see them as a virtue, but people who consider "casserole" a delicacy and say "you betcha" are put off by dirty politics, even if they share Hillary's views on most issues.
Hillary is a strong second place in Iowa polls today, but don't be surprised if she finishes third. Iowa Democrats see just a bit too much of Karl Rove in Hillary Clinton, and that's enough for them to go elsewhere.
Timothy P. Carney, senior reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report, is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.
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