Is it just me, or do this year's Iowa Caucuses seem more important than ever? (It could just be me, I suppose: I'm from Iowa, so I'm biased, and I also have a notoriously short memory.) Mike Huckabee's rising strength among likely caucus-goers has redefined the Republican race. And all three front-running Democrats see winning the 30th most populous state in the nation as crucial to capturing their party's nomination. The choices the rest of us get to make appear to depend on the choices Iowans make on January 3, 2008.

Iowa is an amazing laboratory for participatory democracy. It's one of a handful of places left in America (one of the others, of course, is New Hampshire) with a manageable population contained in a manageable geography -- retail politics is not only practicable, it's necessary. Most everywhere else, the market of potential voters is simply too small to be effective, or too large, and the candidates have to rely on TV. In Iowa and New Hampshire, they meet actual voters, whose concerns largely mirror everyone else's (except, perhaps, for the predilection for ethanol). In 1988, the first year I could vote, I didn't simply see all of the major candidates, I met them, and some of the minor ones, too.

With so much riding on their decisions, the Entrepreneurial Agenda wanted to discover what issues matter most to the small businesspeople who, for moment, matter the most. Last week, on November 26th, with just five weeks before the Caucus, we gathered seven small business owners for a lunch time forum in the downtown offices of the Des Moines Partnership. Six were men; three were Republicans and two were Democrats, and two were independents. They run businesses with as few as four employees and as many as 100, in fields that range from construction to information technology to corporate training.

Over the next several days, we'll recap that discussion right here. It was a surprising conversation in a lot of respects. For one thing, the issues that mattered most to them caught us off-guard. Though polls show that national security and (or) Iraq -- opposite sides of the same coin, really -- are the biggest issues to motivate voters nationally, only two on our panel brought up the topic unbidden. Though we think of business owners as hyper-attuned to economic issues, questions of taxes and trade on the whole didn't move our entrepreneurs. When I asked our group if they thought their taxes were too high, nobody raised their hands. I then asked if their taxes were too low, and got the same result. Josh More, who runs the consulting firm Alliance Technologies, viewed a tax increase as an inevitable payment for the war. "I don't necessarily view that as a voting issue because I don't see any way to change it," he said. "That's where we are."

It also struck me that despite their party affiliations, our panel was tough to categorize. We had a Democratic global warming skeptic and a liberal who worried about the rising nanny state, while one of our Republicans supports amnesty for illegal aliens. I come from a family, and even a community, that claims to have all the solutions to the nation's problems, so it was interesting to hear people say, time and again, "I don't know the answer." I always thought of politics as a process by which you find a candidate whose solutions most match yours, but the entrepreneurs that gathered in the boardroom of the Des Moines Partnership seemed to be shopping for the proposals that made the most sense to them -- the reverse process. So far, they seem to find what's on offer undistinguished.

The issues that our panel seemed to gravitate most to were immigration and energy. So we'll start tomorrow with those two issues. Watch this space.