DES MOINES — During the presidential frenzy that descends upon this farmland state every four years, Mary Ann Corrigan has met Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- and way too many also-rans to name.
Now, blissfully minding her own business at the Machine Shed restaurant, the 72-year-old retired farmer is about to meet John H. Cox.
"I'm running for president of the United States," says Cox, a 51-year-old Republican, as he quickly explains how he would abolish the federal income tax, solve immigration problems and keep gas prices low. Corrigan has barely had a chance to sip her coffee when Cox, a Chicago attorney, accountant and investment manager, churns through his talking points.
Corrigan listens for a couple of minutes, intrigued but clearly confused. Eyeing Cox's dark-blue suit and silk suspenders dotted with miniature White Houses, she interrupts the candidate's sales pitch.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidential candidate: An article in Thursday's Section A about Chicago businessman John H. Cox's run for the White House said the 2008 election would be Nov. 3. It will be Nov. 4.
"Excuse me, but who are you again?" she asks. "And why are you bothering me now?"
Even by the standards of most Iowans, who are used to being bombarded with campaign rhetoric, Cox's stumping is considered a tad early. There are, after all, 760 days until Nov. 3, 2008.
But this presidential race offers a dream scenario for the political fringe and not-so-fringe because there is no incumbent running, no vice president with a claim on a party's nomination, and widespread voter discontent among Democrats and Republicans. Issues that have plagued both parties -- including illegal immigration, the Iraq war and ethics -- fuel the public's frustration and desire for change.
So it's an open field -- at least, that's what the candidates are telling themselves.
"This is the first time since 1928 that neither party has an heir apparent for their nomination," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This presidential race really started the day after the 2004 race ended. It's only going to get more intense" after the midterm election Nov. 7.
As of early September, 75 people had filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission declaring their intention to run for president. At the same time four years ago, 45 people had done so, an FEC official said.
"You start to see more of these long-shot candidates any time people feel the country's in bad shape, and they feel someone needs to do something about it," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "Clearly, people are upset right now."
Cox's campaign kicked into high gear soon after he filed paperwork in February with the FEC. He has spent months crisscrossing windblown prairies and lush farmland, hawking his ideology while serving plates of pancakes at county fairs and singing hymns at rural churches.
Cox has visited all of Iowa's 99 counties, driven across New Hampshire eight times, made five trips to South Carolina and toured the East Coast. A trip through the South is slated for later this month. He has signed up coordinators to spearhead his campaign in 12 states, including California, Oregon and Nevada.
On this swing through Iowa -- Cox's ninth to the state -- he and four staffers will travel nearly 600 miles in two days, making nine stops, and speaking to fewer than 500 people.
The field is getting more crowded each day. According to the Hotline, an online political newsletter, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has visited the Hawkeye State seven times since 2005. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney? Nine trips. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)? Ten.
Cox has bumped into other Republicans: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at a fundraising dinner in New Hampshire in March, and New York Gov. George E. Pataki at an Iowa farmhouse in August. He missed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee by six days on his most recent trip to South Carolina.
Cox also is traveling most of the same roads, and stopping at many of the same towns, as independent Joe "Average Joe" Schriner, an Ohio freelance writer and part-time handyman; Democrat Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska; and Dr. Mark I. Klein, a psychiatrist based in Oakland who describes himself as a GOP "grown-up for the White House."
Even Cox is a little bewildered by all the early action.
"Lock your doors and windows. There's going to be presidential candidates coming out of the woodwork," Cox says to Corrigan, as he hands her some glossy campaign literature.
Then he moves to the next booth at the Machine Shed, where the menu offers an 8-ounce cut of prime rib for "the light appetite" and children's portions are denoted by tiny pink pig faces. Shaking hands with a group of military veterans, Cox repeats his spiel.
Cox was born on Chicago's South Side to a single mother. He and his three siblings, he said, grew up in a politically aware family. His mother, Priscilla, a schoolteacher, walked picket lines in the 1960s and volunteered with the local teachers union.