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MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa

What do you do if you want to be president and no one has heard of you?

You go to 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.

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.

‘’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 solution,’’ Delaney writes in his book "The Right Answer: How We Can Unify Our Divided Nation."

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.

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.’’

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.

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).

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 former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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