POLITICS FEBRUARY 7, 2000
Saturday, January 22, 10 a.m. It’s 20 degrees, the streets are an icy death trap, and there are two men in fuzzy pink pig costumes perched in a white convertible outside my hotel. One of the pigs, for some unfathomable reason, is waving a sign that says tax meat. Presumably they’re trying to send a message to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who is at the hotel bar presiding over one of the final events of his dying presidential quest. Under normal circumstances, I would pause to investigate. But this is pre-caucus weekend in Des Moines, and men in livestock costumes stalking presidential candidates are a common sight. Besides, I have only three hours to reach the eastern edge of the state, where Texas Governor George W. Bush is appearing at the Davenport Holiday Inn in a last-minute push to suck up to as many Iowa voters as possible.
Ordinarily, I would cringe at the prospect of driving 170 miles past nothing but silos and snow-covered cows to hear a canned stump speech. But winter road travel in Iowa is the ultimate extreme sport—much like scaling K2 without a safety line. Despite snowy conditions, the average driving speed is 85 miles per hour. The supposedly sedate Midwestern natives hurtle past, slinging mud, rocks, and huge hunks of ice at your windshield. Every so often, a big rig going Mach 3 catches an icy patch, which sends it careening wildly onto the shoulder and then back into your lane. Smaller vehicles hit the ice and simply jet off the highway. During the drive east, I count no fewer than six vehicles abandoned in snowbanks.
By the time I reach Davenport, the crowd at the Holiday Inn is restless. Many people have been waiting more than an hour to hear George W. They are hungry, their legs are tired, and their kids are starting to whine. Members of Bush’s advance team are rounding up chairs for the elderly. Up near the stage, a group of young people is trying to lead the room in pro-W. cheers, shaking signs and colorful paper pom-poms supplied by the campaign. But most of those in attendance are having none of it. “Alan Keyes shows up on time for his events,” sniffs one woman.
But when the candidate at last steps up to the podium, sporting a spiffy new haircut and a “glad to see ya” smirk, he knows precisely how to warm up the room. The time is near, intones W., his voice rising in anticipation of the response, for Iowans to send a signal about how Republicans will “end the Clinton era in Washington, D.C.!” Whoo-hoo! The crowd goes wild. And, in the blink of a pig’s eye, all is forgiven.
SINCE WINNING THE state’s straw poll last August, Bush has spent a sizable chunk of time and money ingratiating himself with the people of Iowa. He has talked about taxes and trade and Social Security and defense. He has bowed to the god of ethanol and, when backed into a corner, has voiced support for the Republican Party’s anti-abortion plank—a hot topic among heartland conservatives. Still, more than a year after the impeachment unpleasantness, what really gets Iowa conservatives’ juices flowing is the belief that George W. will wipe away the stain Bill Clinton has left on the White House. In a campaign ostensibly about issues, Clinton is, in fact, the only issue that really ignites the Bush fans in Davenport (and Ames and Cedar Rapids). For his talk about free trade, tax cuts, and revamping the military, W. gets solid but not passionate applause. But when he pledges to be “a commander-in-chief who earns the respect of the men and women” in the Armed Forces—a clear slap at our draft-dodging, intern-fondling Bill—the audience roars. Similar howls of approval greet Bush’s vow to restore “honor and dignity” to the Oval Office. Forget “Clinton fatigue”; these voters haven’t tired of Clinton-bashing one bit.
After the speechifying, the crowd seems sated, and W. has even won over a few fence-sitters. “I was mixed between him and Steve Forbes,” says Paul McCoy. “But Bush has such a dynamic personality.” “There’s such sincerity in him, which you see in person much more than on TV,” gushes Roy Kapteina, who drove in with his wife, Sharon, from nearby Muscatine. “His honesty really comes across,” says Sharon, noting that Forbes, by contrast, “does not interact well with people.” “And Forbes has a really wimpy handshake,” adds Roy.
Five hours later, at a Bush rally on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, supporters offer similar testimonies to the candidate’s winning personality. “He’s easy to talk to,” says Dave Webster, one of a handful of early arrivals milling about the giant hangar at PS Air.” He’s laid-back, relaxed. He has a friendly smile—people like that out here.” As show time approaches, I wander over to where three young women, positively mouth-watering in snug black t-shirts with bush 2000 printed in silver across the front, have been charming some of the male campaign workers. The trio is part of Bush’s youth council and has been organizing students throughout the state. “He has what it takes to win the White House over for the Republicans,” says University of Iowa junior Liz Crokin. “A lot of it has to do with his superficial appeal,” she explains. “He’s younger. He’s charismatic. He’s a great-looking guy. And, when you talk with him, you feel like he’s talking on your level, like he doesn’t feel superior.” Again, the verve-challenged Forbes is invoked as a foil: “Forbes just doesn’t have the appeal,” she says with a guilty smile. “He’s robotic. Stiff. It may be unfortunate that we have to elect a candidate who’s charismatic, but. . . .”
CHARISMATIC, EASY-GOING, KNOWS how to connect with people. That’s right—in their overwhelming hatred of Clinton the man, it seems Iowa Republicans have anointed a candidate whose primary appeal is his Clintonesque persona. Sure, Iowans will also tell you that they like Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” his “focus on education,” or his “family values,” but his policy positions are clearly secondary to his charm and perceived empathy. Many supporters flail when asked to explain the candidate’s issue positions and fall back on the oft-repeated catchphrases they’ve heard in his stump speech. (“He’s conservative and he’s compassionate,” raves one Bushie.)
But, perhaps subconsciously embarrassed by the parallels between their hero and their nemesis, Iowa Bush fans endlessly emphasize one clear difference between George W. and William J.: breeding. In Davenport, Representative Jim Leach introduces Bush as “a man with a good father, a good mother, and an extraordinary wife.” Two days later, at a Bush rally at Iowa State University, Senator Chuck Grassley asserts that “just knowing his dad oughta be enough to say you’re for Governor Bush.” Conducting a thoroughly unscientific survey, I find that one out of every three Iowa Bushies cites W.’s fine family as evidence of the candidate’s fitness to lead. Iowans remember President Bush as a decent, upstanding, moral man. And they project that goodness onto George W. “Character,” snapped one aged voter, explaining her support for George W. But it’s Dad’s character, not W.’s, that the name Bush brings to mind here.
Bush the elder, of course, had no charisma. This is one of the big reasons Clinton trounced him. In George W., Republicans have a candidate with Clintonian charm but on whom voters can project the decency and honor of Poppy. It remains to be seen whether W. can retain this amalgamated appeal—especially if rumors about his past crop up once again. But on this night in Cedar Rapids, as the candidate dives into the crowd for yet another meet-and-greet with voters, the magic seems to be holding. He smiles. He laughs. He kisses cheeks and slaps backs, just like the farmer next door. No wimpy handshakes here, folks.
CAUCUS NIGHT, JANUARY 24, 7 p.m. I am standing in the basement cafeteria of the Alden Community School in Hardin County, which I think may be, officially, the middle of nowhere. The town of Alden lies about 90 minutes north of Des Moines, smack-dab in the center of the state. With cornfields and hog farms all around, it is the kind of place from which people are frequently abducted by aliens. The town has some 900 residents—most of them on the “mature” side and either involved in or retired from agribusiness. When the wind is right, you can catch a whiff of hog waste in the air. I have come to Alden in search of a caucus unmarred by TV cameras and political staffers. By ten o’clock this morning, you couldn’t swing a dead cat on the streets of Des Moines without hitting half a dozen reporters. But my guess is you wouldn’t catch Peter Jennings dead in Alden. So now it’s just me and 56 Iowa Republicans raring to fire the first shot of Election 2000.
My host for the evening is Loren Larson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a dedicated Bush supporter. As caucus chair, Larson is in charge of keeping the meeting running smoothly, making sure nobody tries to grandstand or pick a fight. As people sign in, Larson preps me on what to expect. There will be a major Forbes contingent, he confides with obvious disappointment. “Forbes has made big inroads in this county.” How exactly? Barbecue, says Larson. Last June, one of the local gentry hosted a cookout for Forbes that Larson estimates fed some 6,000 folks. Give an Iowan a free meal, says Larson, and he’ll love you forever. “There are people around here who are professional funeralgoers because there’s always free food afterward,” he says in all seriousness. “It doesn’t matter if they know who died or not.”
One of the most important things to know about a presidential caucus is that very little time is spent actually discussing the presidential race. First, caucus officers and delegates to the county committees must be elected—an exercise that rapidly degenerates into something akin to freeze tag. People nominate one another to be spiteful. Those nominated then nominate someone else as payback. (You’re it! No, you’re it!) During the election for secretary, a little drama even develops. Lois Daum, a tiny, grandmotherly woman, is nominated and moves over to sit at the head table. But wait! Some troublemaker throws Stephanie Verkandt’s name into the mix, and an open vote must be taken. The hands go up. The hands come down. The hands go up. Oh! It’s Lois over Stephanie, 27 to 18. Justice prevails.
An eternity later, it’s time for people to voice their presidential preferences. Under caucus rules—and Larson is a stickler for the rules—each person may take no more than two minutes to speak her piece. In larger precincts, the result is that only those who feel strongly about a candidate bother to sound off. But Larson isn’t giving this group that option. Seat by seat, he goes around the cafeteria tables, pressing people to share their positions. Individually, the responses are unimpressive—often bordering on the unintelligible. Taken together, though, they prove revealing.
Larson is right: this is a Forbes crowd. One after another, people wax rhapsodic about the high-born publisher’s business smarts, his financial independence (“He’s the only guy who isn’t bought off!”), his outspokenness on abortion, and, most especially, his vow to decrease their tax burden. But there are also more than a dozen Bushies in attendance, most of whom offer strikingly similar—and almost wholly substanceless—explanations for their choice. All told, eight people make a formal pitch for W. The first man to speak argues, “The father set a good pattern for the son.” Four people vent their spleen over the Clinton era and assert that Bush is the Republican most likely to beat Gore. One man expresses disgust with Clinton and proclaims that Bush is “the most likable person out there,” while a woman a little farther down the table praises Bush as a man of great “energy and spirit—and someone you like to see on television. Not that that’s a big thing. But he has a good way of speaking. He can win it. And we need to have a winner in the White House.” To sum up: He’s got a winning personality. So much for the punditocracy’s decision to dub this the “issue-oriented” election.
In the official Alden tally, Forbes comes out on top with 34 votes. Bush pulls 16, Bauer four, and Keyes two. It takes 15 minutes for someone to find a cell phone that works out here so Daum can report the results to the tallying center in Des Moines. The final 45 minutes are spent debating possible planks to recommend for the party’s platform—the most controversial of which comes from an elderly gentleman who feels that the word “drug” should be excised from all written materials found in schools and other state-affiliated institutions. “Children see that word and become curious,” he argues.
The party breaks up promptly at 9 p.m. Somehow, I survive the drive back to Des Moines and crawl into bed just before 2 a.m. The final caucus results have long since been announced, and, while W. didn’t do so well in Alden, he did pull 41 percent of the statewide vote. A clip from his post-caucus celebratory speech is playing on c-span. Natty in blue pinstripes and a red polka-dot power tie, the candidate speaks warmly of children and hope and national unity. He smiles his compassionate smile and nods graciously at the cheering crowd. The effect is positively presidential. Bill Clinton never looked better.
This article appeared in the February 7, 2000 issue of the magazine.