ELKADER, Iowa -- One presidential hopeful relies on the Internet to attract crowds and get followers to practices for the Iowa caucuses. The other prefers the traditional approach, letting rank-and-file labor spread the word from one union hall to the next.
Atop the field in Iowa, Democratic rivals Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt are engaged in more than just a fierce fight for a high-stakes win. Their two campaigns represent a classic contest between new and old, a Web-generation's way of getting out the vote versus a union-tested method that has worked since the emergence of the caucuses in the 1970s.
The outcome Jan. 19 could set the standard for the rest of the 2004 race -- and even future presidential aspirants, according to Democratic activists across the country.
"I think this race will come down to Dean and Gephardt, and the results will speak volumes about their approaches," said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "You have a traditional candidate running with labor and minorities against a candidacy that is nontraditional and radical."
Dean has used the Internet from the start, signing up backers not just in Iowa but across the country. His list of supporters has grown to 478,000, and his campaign brings them together once a month for discussions on Dean's effort, for community projects or for trial runs for the caucus.
At a recent event at the University of Iowa, Dean drew more than 800 people. More noteworthy was a campaign stop in tiny Elkader in northeast Iowa, where 150 showed up at a local restaurant. Phil Specht, a 30-year veteran of local political wars, was wide-eyed.
"Is he getting these kinds of crowds everywhere?" he asked a reporter. "This is a huge crowd for Elkader on the middle of a weekday afternoon."
Challenging Dean is Gephardt, the 27-year House veteran who won Iowa in his unsuccessful White House bid in 1988. As he did then, the Missouri lawmaker has assembled a traditional voter turnout operation rooted in organized labor. History has shown that one out of three who show up on a winter's night in January comes from a union household.
"He's like an old pair of shoes in Iowa," said former Iowa Republican chairman Michael Mahaffey. "I think some people were trying on some different shoes and are now coming back to the old comfortable pair."
Gephardt has the endorsement of unions representing 54,000 Iowa workers, giving him the organizational vehicle to turn out members.
The Missouri lawmaker is skeptical of Dean's approach in Iowa.
"I think in the end you can't overcome real support with some new technology," Gephardt said. "There's no technological silver bullet to get that done."