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For Iowa caucuses, GOP volunteer Joni Scotter is highly sought after

COLUMN ONE

Since 1996, Joni Scotter has been addicted to presidential politics at the Iowa caucuses, going all out to support her candidate.

January 12, 2011|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

"It's a very retail process," said Eric Woolson, a veteran GOP strategist. "Having someone you know and trust call up and say, 'Hey, this is someone you should support,' is probably going to have a bigger impact on people than all those TV commercials."

Just about 120,000 Republicans are expected to caucus, and Scotter seems determined to meet and befriend every single one.

At a December meeting of the Linn County GOP she was a compact cyclone: smiling, hugging and photographing each of the 40-plus people in attendance — a small gift, she explained, to pass out later. "You look awesome!" she assured a man in a purple dress shirt, ignoring his scowl.

For years, the Iowa Republican Party has been split between social and economic conservatives, but Scotter has avoided the rift, building bridges to candidates and partisans on both sides. Asked her particular brand of Republicanism, her response was telling: "I'm a worker."

::

Lamar Alexander changed Scotter's life.

In early 1996, she received a postcard inviting her to a women's Republican lunch in Cedar Rapids. The speaker was Honey Alexander, wife of the former Tennessee governor and presidential hopeful.

Scotter's sons were grown, leaving her plenty of spare time. Her interest in lunch was purely social, but Scotter liked what Alexander said about her husband. So she volunteered and worked "like a bat out of heck," making phone calls, hanging yard signs, knocking on doors, handing out campaign literature, baking cookies — peanut butter with four kinds of chocolate chips — and cheerleading at rallies.

Alexander finished third in Iowa and lost the Republican nomination. But by then Scotter was addicted; she loved the camaraderie of campaigning, the sense of dealing with big and important issues, and the feeling of being in the know.

"When you're making phone calls, when you're going door-to-door, you can really, really feel the way an election's going," she said, and as a volunteer she has no compunction sharing that information with her candidate. "You're not working for a paycheck, so you can say, 'We're losing our butts,' and have no problem doing that."

Somewhere along the way, Scotter became a die-hard Republican, sold on the gospel of lower taxes and less government. She signed on with one candidate and then another, gaining confidence with each campaign and growing more politically savvy. In 2000, when Alexander ran a second time, she dispensed with sentimentality and supported former Vice President Dan Quayle until he quit the race, then backed George W. Bush. "I didn't think Lamar could win," Scotter said.

Her views mix fiscal conservatism and social moderation. She opposes the death penalty and abortion, but wouldn't outlaw the procedure. "Whatever anybody has to do they gotta do and I will not judge them," she said.

She struggles with the question of same-sex marriage, which she opposes. But she also believes gay couples should have many of the privileges, like visiting a hospitalized loved one, that married couples enjoy. "I am so scared for gay people, because there's so much anger in this country," she said.

Naturally, issues are important as Scotter picks a presidential candidate. Whomever she supports must pledge to repeal President Obama's healthcare plan, slash the federal deficit and rein in Social Security and Medicare.

But just as important, Scotter will rely on her gut; does a candidate seem honest, caring and willing to listen? Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, is unquestionably a good man, Scotter said, but acts so important "he moves past people." Gingrich is more attuned to what others say. Romney "is a really good listener."

She backed him in 2008, but won't commit again, despite overtures from his camp. "It's early," Scotter said, and someone else might "sweep me off my feet."

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In April, Scotter will celebrate 50 years of marriage. She met her husband at a dance soon after turning 18 and was married less than a year later.

Richard Scotter, a fellow Republican, encourages his wife's passion for politics, to a point. Their home in suburban Cedar Rapids is decorated with quilts and some of the compensation from years of campaign effort: photos with Marilyn Quayle and Rudolph W. Giuliani, handwritten notes from Bush and Karl Rove. (A 16-foot "Bush-Quayle" banner stays under the bed because, Scotter's husband insists, it's too big to hang. But she has been known to lug it around to show off.)

Richard, now retired, is building a small plane, a two-seat Zodiac, and Joni can hardly wait. Then, she said happily, she can cover even more ground, promoting the Republican cause and chasing would-be presidents across Iowa, instead of the other way around.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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