Spotlight shines on rural Iowa as candidates begin their frenzied race for the White House

Bill Davis hunts deer for the freezer with a muzzle-loading rifle, has a straggly beard and works for a local authority. He worries about his health insurance, about paying for his two children and about settling his bills. In essence, he is the sort of person who could change the future of American politics.

This weekend, just two days before voting in the crucial Iowa caucuses that will greatly influence who challenges George Bush in November's presidential election, it is people like Mr Davis that the Democratic candidates, hurtling around this frozen state in a frenzied effort to secure their party's nomination, are desperate to win over. With polls showing a tightening race and just a few points separating four front runners, the candidates' relentless, multimillion-dollar campaigns are shamelessly playing to the anxieties of ordinary workers such as 50-year-old Mr Davis.

"I have got the best health care plan," says a television advert from the Massachusetts senator, John Kerry, who has a lead of five points, one poll says. "Dick Gephardt has spent the past 30 years fighting for America's working families," claims an advert for the Missouri congressman. "Howard Dean is the only candidate who has stood up to George Bush," says an advert for the former Vermont governor, the leading Democrat nationally.

The rural state of Iowa with its huge skies and gently undulating landscape represents the quintessential American heartland. Geographically, it sits close to the centre of the nation and in most surveys - political opinion, income, education or whatever else - Iowa usually comes half-way down the list.

But once every four years this state of less than three million people punches well above its weight. Historically, it has always been the first state to hold a poll to select the parties' presidential nominee and while fewer than 100,000 people participate in the so-called caucuses, they are terribly important: a rule of American politics - broken by Bill Clinton in 1992 - is that no candidate wins with White House without first winning in either Iowa or New Hampshire, which holds its "primary" on 27 January.

Yet while Mr Davis might be the ideal voter, he also illustrates the problems the candidates face, and how spending millions on wall-to-wall advertising can only do so much. "I think these candidates are so far removed from small people like me that they have forgotten I exist," Mr Davis said, in a McDonald's in the small community of Marshalltown, an hour's drive on all but empty roads from the state capital, Des Moines. "They are all ready to blame it on the other candidate. They should be saying, let's get together and fix this."

Mr Davis, who doubts he will vote on Monday, is, like many Iowans, fiercely independent and suspicious of politicians from Washington. His concerns are the concerns of most people in a state largely dependent on blue-collar employment at a time when the economy is depressed and new jobs are hard to find.

"Where I work now, I have health insurance," he said. "But every year it's not as good as it was. The deductibles are higher. I think there is a whole segment of the population that is just an illness away from bankruptcy. Just a couple of hundred yards from where Mr Davis was sitting on Thursday evening, Mr Gephardt, the candidate backed by the unions, had delivered a barnstorming speech to a small, roaring group of working-class supporters minutes earlier. "President Bush has lost 3.3 million jobs; he has lost more than the past 11 presidents," Mr Gephardt said, vastly more rousing than his lacklustre performances as senior Democrat in Washington would have suggested possible. "I have served under five presidents. He is by far the worst. I'm nostalgic for Ronald Reagan; he's that bad."

Mr Davis, sipping a soft drink while his children were busy in the play area, had no time for suggestions of irony. "He brings up [his working-class roots] now, but it's long forgotten," he said. "I think the politicians are out of touch."

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