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Four years ago today, we walked down the hall from our hotel room in Ames, Iowa, and heard the governor of Iowa introduce the next president of United States.

OK, Hillary Clinton didn't win the White House. But the introduction didn't seem crazy. Clinton, the front runner, was still four days from losing the Iowa caucuses to an upstart Illinois senator named Barack Obama.

We left the Clinton event and drove a few blocks to Iowa State University where Elizabeth Edwards was introducing another Democratic presidential candidate, her husband, the former North Carolina senator John Edwards. (We didn't know then that she was dying of cancer, and he was concealing his affair with a campaign videographer.)

For political junkies, Iowa is hog heaven. As one Iowan told me, you can't throw a snowball without hitting a candidate.

One couple managed to have their 7-week-old son photographed with nine candidates for president, one future president, one former president (Bill Clinton) and one president's daughter (Chelsea Clinton).

At Democratic Caucus 53, at Des Moines' Thomas Jefferson High School, the chairman asked how many experienced a face-to-face conversation with a candidate. More than half raised their hands.

In a few days, we saw up close Democrats Clinton, Obama and Edwards and Republicans Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. We also attended both Democratic and Republican caucuses.

We went on a whim.

"It would be fun to be there," my wife said.

"We can go if we want," I said.

Three days later, we were waiting with several hundred people for a New Year's Eve appearance by Obama. He was late, but no one seemed to care. The next morning's paper would report he was leading in the latest poll, and in that moment, everything changed.

All this talk of Iowa leads, inevitably, to friends asking: Why aren't you there this week?

I asked my wife, "Why aren't we there this week?"

She replied, "Are you crazy?"

I think it was a rhetorical question.

The New York Times columnist Gail Collins last week made fun of the nice people of Iowa and called the Iowa Caucuses "really ridiculous."

It would be ridiculous of me to argue with anyone smart enough to write for the New York Times. Even in tiny Iowa, only a small percentage of the registered voters participate in the caucuses. Iowa is about as diverse as mashed potatoes in a snow drift. And Iowa has about as much in common with California as the North Pole has with, say, Palm Desert.

It's really cold in Iowa. When we checked into the hotel in Ames on our first day, it was about 20 degrees and the wind was howling.

"It's really cold," I said to the hotel clerk.

"Oh, no, sir," he replied, "Tomorrow will be cold."

He was right. A day later, the high temperature was in the single digits, and we could walk across the Iowa State campus without seeing another human being.

Turns out Iowans aren't stupid enough to be walking outside when it is so cold your face hurts.

In what will have to pass for a defense of Iowans, I will say the locals take seriously their role in choosing (or not choosing) the next president. We could wish more Americans took the same approach to citizenship.

Wherever candidates appear (and they appear almost everywhere), the question is asked: Who is undecided? And lots of hands are raised.

At candidates' events in California, what are the chances that someone is there to learn about what the candidate believes?

We remember certain moments from our time as political tourists:

Clinton appearing side by side with her daughter and her mother, three generations who witnessed the evolution of women's rights.

Huckabee introducing Chuck Norris, the martial arts actor, making plain who was the star attraction.

Romney, his wife and kids, the all-American family, waving to supporters gathered at a suburban Des Moines office park. It was all too perfect.

An SUV carrying Clinton passing an intersection, just at dusk on a cold, gray day. She stared out the window, alone with her thoughts.

Iowans milling around in the organized chaos of the Democratic caucus at Jefferson High School, scrambling to persuade uncommitted voters to move to their corner.

Obama delivering his victory speech at a downtown convention center in Des Moines. People were witnessing history, and they knew it. The place was electric.

Even if my wife thinks I'm crazy, I still think about another trip to Iowa. But the Democratic nomination is decided, and the Republican field is, well, confusing. Romney and Ron Paul jumped ahead in the polls on Friday, having outlasted four other front runners — Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

In the GOP, the only thing worse than not being the front-runner is being the front-runner.

Iowa was a game changer for Democrats in 2008, but it isn't likely to be decisive for Republicans in 2012. (With Chuck Norris' help, Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 and then quickly faded.)

Besides, did I mention that it gets cold in Iowa?

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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