Pat Minor sat in a sun-drenched park in Anamosa Iowa Saturday, a few feet from John Edwards. It was the third meeting of the day with Iowa voters for the Democratic presidential candidate. But not his first with Pat Minor.
At the gathering of about 150 people, the 55-year-old bookstore clerk asked Edwards whether, as president, he would invite the Palestinians' elected Hamas government to the negotiating table. Not until it recognizes Israel and renounces violence, he replied. Then Edwards complimented his questioner.
"You do a thoughtful job of bringing this up everytime I see you," he said.
Minor has talked to Edwards about the Palestinians four times this year. Earlier this month, she got a chance to ask former President Clinton, campaigning with his wife Hillary. That's how it goes in Iowa. It's an old saw, but a lot of Iowans won't decide who they'll caucus for in January until they can look a candidate in the eye, kicking the tires before they buy.
"It's always up close and personal," said teacher Connie McKean.
With their January caucuses, Iowa voters get the first say on the 2008 presidential race. And they take thier role seriously. Almost 400 showed up to hear Edwards in Fort Dodge Thursday night. Other crowds swelled appearances in smaller towns on Friday and Saturday. Clinton and Obama have drawn even more.
People who show up ask nuanced questions about returning veterans, energy policy, health care and other issues.
"Your voter out here is a savvy voter," said Mike Robinson, chair of the Linn County Democratic Party in Cedar Rapids.
In North Carolina, the presidential race is still an abstract issue for a lot of voters. If candidates pop in at all, it's usually to raise money or change planes. Here, amid the cornfields, politics counts. Voters aren't the only ones who know it.
"You actually get to look us in the eye and judge who deserved to be president of the United States," Edwards said in Anamosa.