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Campaign 2004: The Iowa Caucus, silence on the Native front

In a few weeks, Iowa Democrats will be the first to weigh in on a slew of hopefuls for the Democratic presidential nomination. Until then, those contenders and their supporters will flood the state, talking to anyone who will listen about prescription drugs, the war on terror, or whatever else is on voters' minds. But you can bet some issues won't be addressed; although candidates for the 2004 nomination have been courting Native voters in some venues, in Iowa, a state whose sole tribe has been rocked by internal political problems, Democratic candidates have been silent on the subject of American Indian issues.

State party leaders say they expect a record turnout for this year's Caucus, with more than 100,000 Democrats participating. But one local voter said Indian issues won't be a big part of the equation here.

"I haven't noticed that any of the candidates have paid any particular attention to Native issues," said Joe Coulter, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma tribal member who will participate in the Iowa Caucus on Jan. 19.

Sovereignty, Indian health and trust responsibility are never hot topics in this Midwestern farm state, where American Indians make up less than a half-percent of the population. Add to that this year's struggle for leadership of the Meskwaki settlement - the state's most visible Indian community - and you get a political minefield few candidates would willingly walk into.

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"Maybe, wisely, they didn't want to appear to capitalize on the problems that the tribe was having internally," Coulter said.

"With the particular political climate right now, if a candidate is interested in winning the [Iowa] Caucuses, I don't know that American Indian issues are very high on the list. Everything from mad cow to Iraq, that's what they're going to be talking about."