The Iowa caucus race is in its final hours and that means the candidates spent the last week canvasing the state corner to corner. This quadrennial ritual of national media attention is one of our few glory moments in the national conversation. Since I was in Des Moines visiting for the holidays, my dad and I decided to take advantage of some of the events around town to get a closer look at the 2012 Republican candidates. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turned out we witnessed some political fireworks.
We started by driving out to Indianola to see Rick Perry. The event was held in a private dining room at The Sports Page. The crowd was about 100 people (my guesstimate). The first thing I noticed is just how many media types are there. Cameras of all kinds are everywhere so we needed to be prepared to be filmed and photographed.
The Warren County Republican GOP chairman Rick Halvorsen started the meeting by introducing someone we had not expected to see: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona who has made headlines for his unique handling of inmates. The Sheriff mostly spoke about Perry’s stance on illegal immigration and his policies to handle illegals.
After a couple of minutes Sheriff Joe introduced “the next President of the United States,” Gov. Rick Perry. His speech emphasized his record on taxes, immigration, his faith, as well as a few barbs at other candidates. He declared himself the true conservative in the race.
During the question and answer portion, a woman forgot her questions to which Perry quipped “I have that problem sometimes, too.” His good humor revealed underlying humility, a rare quality in politicians at this level.
The crowd was mostly subdued and those I spoke to were interested but not yet decided if Perry was their man. My informal and unscientific survey agreed with recent polls that Evangelicals like Perry but are also considering Santorum which explains why Perry called out the former Senator’s earmarking past.
After the official part of the program was the meet and greet. I managed to get Perry to sign the one of the stickers his campaign passed out. Two days later I happened on a video of this on MSNBC. We were just watching TV to catch up on what the liberals were saying and there I was! Everyone is entitled to 15 minutes, I guess.
The same evening we decided to catch the Ron Paul event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Now that we had a little experience we thought we knew what to expect but Paul’s event had a different flavor altogether. The first indication we had that this event would be different was the people outside selling buttons. Freelance vendors don’t show up unless there are going to be a good crowd. The second was the fact that you had to have pre-reserved passes to get in before 6:30 PM when the event was scheduled at 7:00 PM.
I passed the time until the event started by chatting with two gentlemen sitting nearby. One was a solid Paul supporter. The other was still undecided but from Chicago so his vote does not have to be decided so quickly.
When the event was close to starting we saw Ron Paul slip in the door behind the stage. The crowd, which by now had grown to nearly 500 people, erupted in cheers. The pre-event music was very patriotic and a graphic on a large screen to the right of the stage declared that Paul received more military donations than the other candidates.
Once the rally started two odd things happened. First, the crowd was led in singing songs like “America, the Beautiful” which made it feel like a worship service complete with a designated song leader. The crowd sang along but it was awkward.
Second, a man was introduced as a “special guest” who turned out to be Kent Sorenson, an Iowa state senator who until about an hour before was working on Michele Bachmann’s campaign as her Iowa campaign chairman. This was big news and no one outside the hall had heard it yet. Sorenson defected from Bachmann’s campaign to Paul’s apparently because Paul had endorsed him and helped his own campaign in the past. Why he waited until a week before the caucus remains a mystery.
Finally, Ron Paul got up to speak. What interested me is that Paul never seemed to look at his notes. In fact, I’m not even sure he had notes. He simply spoke and every line was designed for applause. The crowd was raucous and mostly made up of young people which is also consistent with the book on Paul’s support.
My favorite moment came when someone from the Occupy movement began shouting something indistinguishable interrupting Paul’s speech. He handled it perfectly by looking stoically at the crowd while the loudmouth was escorted out. “Isn’t freedom of speech wonderful?” Paul asked? The crowd roared in agreement.
I often hear from conservative pundits that Ron Paul is a little far out there on some of his positions. During his speech I discovered what they mean for myself. Paul insists that “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Perhaps the United States cannot deploy troops everywhere but some of those deployments are valuable and not simply carryovers from past wars. Paul railed about the number of bases the U.S. keeps around the world but it takes only a moment of intelligent thought to realize our military commanders must see some strategic purpose in keeping a base in Germans or South Korea and other places as well. I found his foreign policy statements short-sighted, naive, and unequal to the reality of a dangerous world.
We left without plunging into the multitude of admirers waiting for photographs with the candidate.
The last event we attended was a Mitt Romney event two days later at a local grocery store. It was freezing and rainy. We arrived early to find the cafe full but ordered breakfast anyway and were surprised when it arrived quickly.
We learned of this event from a robocall from the campaign and were excited because Chris Christie was the special guest campaigning with the Romney’s. It had to be held outside because of the crowd coming. This was easily the most exciting of the three events we attended and garnered the most national media because of Romney’s front-runner status.
It was clear, too, that this was the most organized and professional campaign we had seen. Perry’s event was organized but its intimacy siphoned the grandeur of meeting a man who would like to be president. The Paul event felt unwieldy in spite of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Romney’s, by contrast, was polished down to every detail. I realized this when some staffers pulled out paper towels to wipe the small stage set up for the appearance. They were taking no chances. Intangibles are an imprecise way to evaluate candidates but the whole thing felt presidential.
About 20 minutes late Romney, his wife, and Christie appeared from their tour bus. Romney was standing at the door of the bus as it pulled up. He was ready to engage the audience.
Romney greeted the crowd and then introduced Christie. He spoke for only a couple of minutes with the highlight coming as he said he’d be back “Jersey-style” if Iowa did not show up for Romney. The crowd cheered the possibility of the New Jersey governor coming back next fall to stump for Romney when he mentioned it. Some have speculated that Christie would be a good VP choice for Romney. If he wins the nomination, Romney could do a lot worse. It would also make this appearance one of the first of the ticket together. (Politics, like life, is full of what-if’s and possibilities. Who knows if this ticket will happen?)
Ann Romney said a few nice things about her husband’s character and career and introduced him as “the next president of the United States” (where have I heard that before?).
Romney gave his short stump speech mostly knocking Barack Obama and emphasizing the need to return to the founding values of the country. He encouraged people to come out to the caucus on Tuesday.
Once his speech was over the three worked the crowd. Mrs. Romney shook hands until she could get to the bus and climbed aboard. Christie was a bit more sociable and worked one side of the crowd while Romney took the other.
It was at this point that I realized the caliber of the event. I turned around and saw none other than Chris Matthews plodding through the crowd trying to get to Romney. Let me tell you he is a tall man, much taller than I expected. And he looks way older in person than he appears on television. I asked him how he liked the Java Joe’s coffee because he had broadcast his show from there the previous evening. He mumbled something about drinking Starbucks International that morning and having too much sugar.
Matthews eventually came back around and started barking questions at people. “Who is supporting Mitt Romney?” “Don’t you want to be on national television?” “Why do you like Romney?” As if he couldn’t believe anyone would. A woman who I had been chatting with there urged me to jump into his spotlight which I declined. I’m no match for a liberal gun like that and too irresolute in my support so far. I did not want to say something that could be misinterpreted, as media sharks like Matthews are known to do. Or maybe I was just chicken.
Later we stood in the background as Mitt Romney sat for an interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC. What I like about Romney is his unflappability. I know some who think this is a liability but he really does look, sound, and come across as a potential president. Should the externals be as important as they are? Maybe not but the subconscious messages a candidate sends make or break their campaign. As Romney was questioned by Mitchell he did nothing but smile that grandfatherly smile of his. It would be condescending if it did not seem so sincere. We could not hear the questions nor the answers but we caught it later on MSNBC and Mitchell was grilling Romney trying to get him to commit to releasing his tax returns. Romney was having none of it and deftly deflected her barbs while staying on message.
The Iowa caucuses are a time when candidates can be seen up close and personal. They can be inspected and often asked questions directly. The people you normally only read about or see video of are right in front of you wanting to shake your hand, asking for your vote.
We did not see all the candidates. I would have liked to see Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum but they were both stumping in the farther reaches of the state and we couldn’t make it. By the time I caucus in Colorado one or the other of the two may not even be in the race. Much depends on what happens today.
Get out and caucus, Iowa! Vote for the person who best represents your view and recommend a few to the country. It’s your moment in the spotlight and it won’t come around for four more years.