DES MOINES, Iowa — In every presidential election season, Iowa is a political stage set. With its sprawling farms, literate voters, unforgettable fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, wild-eyed liberals and devout religious conservatives, the state and its caucuses provide a picturesque setting for candidates scrambling for a moment of attention and hoping to be transformed by prairie dust from improbable to inevitable.
Then everyone zips out of here as fast as possible and promptly forgets about the state for another four years.
Not this time. Iowa has emerged as one of about 10 swing states in the general election, and this time the nominees are returning — not once, but often — for an encore turn on the Iowa stage.
This fall, the farmers working late at harvest time aren’t the only Iowans whose lights are illuminating the wide night skies here. The campaign workers are working late, too.
Seldom has so much political activity been invested by so many political activists for what would seem to be so little political payoff. But suddenly Iowa’s six little electoral votes are the electoral version of blue ribbons at the state fair. They’re big prizes.
The election is that close — and was long before the first presidential debate catapulted former Gov. Mitt Romney into a virtual tie with President Barack Obama.
“The debates affect donors and mobilize activists here,” says Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Grinnell College, some 60 miles east of Des Moines. “But I bet on Election Day the state will still be uncertain. We won’t know who won Iowa until late that night.”
Which is why this month Mr. Romney visited teeny Van Meter (population 1,073), best known as the home of fireballing pitcher Bob Feller, and Mr. Obama paused in Mount Vernon (population 4,506), where ordinarily the biggest thing in town in October is the chili cook-off.