MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- What do you do if you want to be president and no one has heard of you?
You go to Dewitt, Tipton, Glenwood, Denison, Alba, Knoxville, Perry and Grimes, and nine other places this year alone -- emphasizing the small Iowa towns that seldom see a presidential candidate. You take out an ad during the Super Bowl two years before the Iowa caucuses -- an unheard-of extravagance that no one dared try before. You open six campaign offices in Iowa -- before your better-known rivals have opened even one. You win the endorsement of four county central Democratic committees in Iowa -- long before the top-tier candidates have lassoed any.
And you make 24 campaign trips to Iowa and another 14 to New Hampshire, the sites of the first two political tests of the 2020 campaign, states that pride themselves on being the political equivalent of the "Cheers" bar -- places where, the civic folklore says, everyone knows your name.
Everyone in the political world knows your name, unless, of course, your name is John Delaney.
So here, in the sprawling Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, strides in Delaney, 55 years old, a former businessman and three-term congressman, which means he is more financially secure and served two more terms in the House than Abraham Lincoln. More quixotic than quirky, he's not an eccentric, just a man with exceedingly little impatience for the impossible. He's an unknown onetime lawmaker with a dream, a plan, an iron will and plenty of time to tool around the back roads, and on this chilly Iowa afternoon he is talking about veterans affairs and the wage gap and -- to the bemused bewilderment of the two dozen people in the room, not one of whom fully understands what he is talking about -- the earned income tax credit.
But for all that, what he is really doing is making a statement about determination and grit and perseverance.
"He's been out here for a long time," says J.D. Scholten, a Democratic folk hero for coming within 3 percentage points last November of defeating GOP Rep. Steve King, considered by progressives as the congressional face of racism. "We've gotten to know him very well. He has a voice and an avenue to the nomination. He's done the gritty work a year before others even started."
He has done that, plus build companies and, along the way, write the de rigueur campaign book. His is called "The Right Answer: How We Can Unify Our Divided Nation," and since no one will read a book by a presidential candidate, especially a candidate no one has heard of, as a public service here are the two sentences you need to know about the political ethos of presidential candidate John Delaney, taken straight from the volume that bears his name:
"We've got to stop retreating to our corners and complaining about each other. At a crucial moment in our nation's history, we're looking for arguments when we need to be looking for solutions."
As the forum in the veterans' home breaks up, Delaney lingers long enough to speak to every voter who approaches him, beginning with a quiet "I'm John" and then engaging in leisurely conversation. Listen in on his exchange with a retired Marshalltown ophthalmologist as they discuss the characteristics required for presidential leadership:
Dr. John Greather: "Character is paramount."
Delaney: "Central to everything."
Greather: "We hired a guy who is absolutely immoral."
Delaney: "It shows how disillusioned people are."
That's about as far down Trump Road Delaney will go. By temperament and ideology, he is a moderate, which itself should make him stand apart, and he is not given to spending his campaign minutes, hours, days, months and, in his case, years talking about how the other billionaire running in 2020, Donald Trump, is a threat to humankind. "If you're going to defeat Trump, you have to run with a positive message," says Monica Biddix, his Iowa state campaign director. "We saw what happened when all those candidates in 2016 attacked Trump. That's clearly not a winning strategy."
A few minutes later, Delaney pulls up a folding chair and talks with an out-of-town columnist, a mixture of specifics -- about how Obamacare needs to be "fixed," about how the Green New Deal being pushed by liberal Democrats is "just not going to happen" -- and an exposition about the style he'd employ to govern:
"I'm about solutions, bringing the country together so we can start making progress, make a new future. The question is how we start to bring the country together -- not to agree on everything, but to get some things accomplished."
Delaney has girded himself for the long run, and indeed he's running the longest campaign since Grover Cleveland vowed to regain the White House just moments after he was defeated by Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
"He's working very hard," says state Rep. Mark Smith, the former Democratic leader in the capitol in Des Moines who started talking with Delaney more than two years ago. "He seems willing to work with Republicans, and so I think, eventually, Iowans may be interested to work with him."
And yet for all his good feelings, Smith has not endorsed anyone. And though everybody likes John Delaney, his name is never in the national political conversation. For now he's more a phenomenon than a factor, his appeal concentrated among older voters (who have an avid interest in presidential politics and, in some cases, as much time on their hands as Delaney) and students (who provide a ready audience for any White House candidate).
"Historically, dark-horse candidates don't do well here unless they have an extreme position," says Sarah Purcell, a Grinnell College historian who was a Hillary Clinton precinct caucus captain here four years ago. "You can't ride in here on a moderation horse and have people flock to you, especially in the kind of crowded field we have this time."
And so Delaney must be content with two historical precedents. One is James K. Polk, the classic dark horse, but one who didn't win the White House on moderation but by taking the most territorial expansionist position in the 1848 field. The other is Jimmy Carter, who had been governor of Georgia but had an exceedingly low profile. His big 1976 breakthrough: the Iowa caucuses.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.