MASON CITY, IOWA — The Clintons' decision to spend the Fourth of July in Mason City was only the beginning. Before long, every leading presidential hopeful had come to this small city near the Minnesota state line.
The other day, three presidential candidates -- former Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. John McCain -- were staying at the same Holiday Inn on the main thoroughfare. For a city of about 30,000 -- even at the height of the presidential primary season -- it's a lot of attention.
Mason City, like the state of Iowa itself, is a place of disproportionate importance in the election. Historically, the number of people who take part in the caucuses is vanishingly small. During the last election, only about one in 20 of the city's registered voters showed up to caucus. In the state as a whole, the numbers were somewhat better: Close to one in 10 came out to caucus.
To reach these precious few voters, candidates from both major parties have made a total of 24 pilgrimages here. In town-hall-style meetings, they have listened to complaints and offered answers.
They have also dispatched their nearest and dearest -- political allies and spouses -- to lavish attention on Mason City voters. Former President Clinton accompanied Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York on July 4, and Michelle Obama, wife of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, visited in October.
The presidential campaigns have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy, paying for hotels and meals for staff.
"We get a great look at them. We get to meet their wives and their supporters," said Max Weaver, 56, who attended events last month featuring Richardson of New Mexico and Edwards of North Carolina, both Democrats, and McCain of Arizona, a Republican.
Weaver, a Mason City councilman, said he took his home-schooled children to these political events as real-life civics lessons. The sound bites and talking points of televised debates "don't do me any good," he said. "I like to see the candidates up close: The hand signals from their staff; what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable."
Though most Mason City residents pride themselves on Iowa casting the first ballots of the 2008 campaign, many say they are too busy and confused by the process to participate. By the time the caucuses roll around, they are fed up with politicians, and unwilling to spend a cold January night arguing with their neighbors.
Even Weaver is unsure whether he will caucus.
He would have to change his registration from independent to Democratic on the day of the caucuses to take part. "I'm not comfortable with that because then I have to go back and re-register," he said.
Norb Thomes, 50, and his wife, Marie, 50, had seen Clinton and Obama. The Thomeses often talked of politics, they said, but had never caucused. "The whole caucus thing is a little intimidating," Norb Thomes said.
On this Saturday morning, few people seemed concerned about the presidential race. The city was bustling with other out-of-towners -- farmers who had come to buy fertilizer, families shopping for the holidays. At the mall, JCPenney and Yonkers did brisk business.
Vicki Deal, who works at the bijouterie counter at JCPenney, said she would definitely be voting in 2008 -- her choice: a woman or a black man -- but she would not caucus. "We are busy around this time with the holidays coming," she said.
Bev Marshall, a 68-year-old nurse, said her work schedule prevented her from getting involved to caucus for a candidate.
"When you work 12 hours a day," she said, "you don't have the time."
Halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis, Mason City is a microcosm of the Midwest, with sweeping horizons, broad boulevards and ample parking space. The economy is based on agriculture, and the population is overwhelmingly white -- about 95% of Mason City residents described themselves as white on the 2000 census, about in line with Iowa's general population.
The city is known for its prairie architecture, notably two buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a Jell-O plant on its outskirts. It is also the birthplace of Meredith Willson, who wrote the 1957 hit Broadway musical "The Music Man." The city touts the Meredith Willson Boyhood Home, the Meredith Willson/Music Man Footbridge and the Music Man Square -- complete with ice cream parlor/soda fountain set designs recreated from the movie.
Despite the "Music Man" legacy, the city has failed to revive its crumbling downtown.
"It's a decent musical," said Rua Arnold, 28. Her husband, Derek, 25, added: "But you can't build a city around it."
Like many Midwestern towns, Mason City has struggled to keep its young people from leaving. The Arnolds left for Des Moines but came back -- mostly because the cost of living is lower here.
The couple have not seen any of the candidates speak, and they probably won't caucus, they said.
"We've been pathetic," said Rua Arnold, a graphic designer. "Part of me just gets so burned out on politics."
The attention the presidential candidates pay to Iowa until Jan. 3 -- and the money it brings -- has caused other states to challenge Iowa's first-in-the-nation status. But Iowa has successfully defended its place on the calendar.
This year, Jennifer Edwards, 33, saw Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Edwards speak but missed an appearance by Obama. She had not decided whom to support or whether she would caucus.
"We take it for granted," she said of the visiting politicians. "We think this happens everywhere, but it doesn't."