MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — They say in Iowa that a voter has to meet a candidate for president face to face a few times before deciding whom to support. But something may be changing in the time-honored, Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of American politics played out in the living rooms, corner stores and church basements of Iowa.
The two candidates who are leading in Iowa eight weeks before its precinct caucuses — Herman Cain and Mitt Romney — have barely been to the state. Both skipped an Iowa forum on manufacturing this week, and both will skip a big Republican dinner in the state Friday.
And the candidate who's spending the most time courting voters the old-fashioned way, Rick Santorum, languishes far back in the polls.
Advocates of small-state voting say history will right itself, the absentees will fade and the personal touch will pay off. But a few think that the ability to reach people via the Internet, and particularly to reach Republicans via Fox News, may be signaling a new era.
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"I don't think it matters as much as 10-15 years ago," said Tod Perdelwitz, a farmer from Danville. "Retail politics is still important, but not as important as it was. Now that we have the Internet, we might not have to do it as much."
He showed up at a meeting of conservative Christians at a Baptist church in Marshalltown to hear local and presidential candidates one brisk autumn evening, including Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
But he likes Cain, even though he's never seen Cain in person.
Cain led a recent poll of likely attendees at Iowa's precinct caucuses Jan. 3. He and Romney have held the top two spots in five straight polls in the state over the last month. (All were conducted before news reports that Cain once was accused of sexual harassment.)
Cain and Romney have managed to reach voters in part through strong performances in nationally televised debates. Also, candidates find that they can reach Iowa voters through Fox News, the network of choice for Republicans.
"More people in Iowa see you when you do a hit on Fox News than when you show up in a living room in Iowa. That's just a fact if you do the math and divide the national audience," Fox News contributor Bill Kristol said during a recent appearance on the network.
Ultimately, he added, "you do have to show up. People want to see you."
Cain has shown up in Iowa just once since summer, on Oct. 22. His next planned visit is Nov. 19.
Romney also has visited once since summer, on Oct. 20. Before that, he stopped in Iowa on Aug. 10-11 and on May 27, according to the Des Moines Register calendar that tracks campaign visits. He plans to visit again next Monday.
When the two didn't show up for a forum on manufacturing Monday in Pella, they were chided by a rival and by the state's Republican governor.
"The ones that weren't here were the ones that missed out," Gov. Terry Branstad said. "This was a great opportunity for them to speak not only to the audience here in Iowa but throughout the country on the number one issue, and that is revitalizing the American economy."
"I don't understand how somebody can think they are going to run for president and not show up to talk about the importance of manufacturing and not offer leadership and come out into the open," candidate Newt Gingrich added.
Both men also will skip the Iowa Republican Party's Reagan dinner Friday evening in Des Moines, where the rest of the candidates will speak to a gathering of 1,000 Republicans from around the state. They're in Washington, D.C., that day.
If their success as absentee candidates in Iowa holds up into the caucuses, they'll rewrite the rules of how campaigns are run in the states that vote first for the nominations, which do so in large part because they're small enough to allow candidates to make personal contacts with voters.
Traditionalists say that probably won't happen, though.
Betty McDowell, a retired teacher from Eldora, said she was leaning toward supporting Cain in the caucuses: "But I wish I could hear him in person. You get a feel for the genuineness that way. ... I hope they're not taking us for granted."
"It is important for them to come," said Al Ringgenberg, a retired Air Force colonel from Council Bluffs who's running for the state Senate. "It gives people an opportunity to meet them, look them in the eye, get an unscripted answer."
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, noted proudly at the Marshalltown church gathering that it was the 93rd county he'd visited in Iowa. The next day, he made stops in the last six, boasting of personal campaigning in all 99 of the state's counties over the last months.
"People in Iowa and New Hampshire, I really do believe, they want to see you. They want to measure you up. And they appreciate the fact that you respect them enough to come and see them," Santorum said outside the Marshalltown church.
In the past, he said, "folks who spent the time here did the best here. ... We'll find out."
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