Carol Marin: In Iowa with a Berwyn boy

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Pete D’Alessandro proves you can take the boy out of Berwyn but not Berwyn out of the boy.

His cell phone still has a 708 area code even though he has been living and doing political consulting in Iowa off and on since 1996. Helping elect Democratic governor Tom Vilsack in 1998. Working on Bill Bradley’s presidential bid in 2000.

Now, D’Alessandro, 52, has signed up for the most quixotic quest of his political career. He is the Iowa campaign coordinator for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and a long shot if ever there was one who is taking on frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton.


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Sanders, running as a Democrat, is an outspoken populist attracting big crowds in Iowa, a state that gets up close and personal with its candidates.

“It’s possible for Bernie Sanders to win Iowa,” said David Yepsen, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter who retired his notepad to head the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute a few years ago.

Yepsen doesn’t make such declarations lightly. Yet he also knows, “A candidate can flash on to the scene, a shooting star, and flame out.”

Like Howard Dean in 2004.

What makes the difference in surviving the caucuses? Understanding in microscopic detail their peculiar nature. Something, says Yepsen, for which D’Alesandro has a black belt.

Yepsen describes him as a cross between a rumpled David Axelrod and a grittier Rahm Emanuel.D’Alessandro laughs and says, “No, I think I’m more Pat Quinn, who taught me how to do this, with a little sprinkle of Saul Alinsky.”

But Quinn lost last time, I say.

Bernie Sanders, he retorts, has lost too.

“The first time he ran for U.S. Senate, he got 1 percent of the vote. The last time he ran he got 71 percent. And he was never saying anything different,” he said. “His concept of government stayed the same.”

But as D’Alesandro knows well, Iowa, the first presidential test, can be full of surprises.

In addition to Clinton and Sanders, there are three more Democratic candidates arrivingon Fridayin Cedar Rapids for their first joint appearance: former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Sen. Jim Webb.

And let’s not forget what could be the wildest card of all. That would be if Vice President Joe Biden decides to jump in. Given the recent sorrow of his son’s death, his almost constant public presence at Barack Obama’s side these days, and his heartfelt appearances at South Carolina funerals of massacre victims, the national good will Biden has engendered could complicate the caucus calculus which is a higher form of math than it looks.

“In 2008,” recalls Yepsen, “the Obama people not only won, but shifted surplus Obama votes from Hillary to Edwards, to embarrass her.”

Maneuvers like that take tactical talent and experience.

When Bernie Sanders first called him, D’Alesandro said, “I went up on the mountain, so to speak, called a few dear friends.”

And what did they tell the boy from Berwyn?

“They said, ‘this is your kind of race.’”


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