Don's Diary

March 1, 1996

TUESDAY. Arrived to observe the Iowa caucus, an early part of the presidential election. In time to experience temperatures among the lowest ever recorded here - lower than -40o Fahrenheit. Find after calculation to centigrade that -40o is -40o regardless of the system. When I cannot open the car first time I am shivering uncontrollably by the time I have got inside. Wonder what drives Iowans to leave their homes in this cold.

But 100 are already at a Lamar Alexander meeting by the time I get there. Red plaid shirts, the homely emblem of this candidate, are in evidence, as is a shared dislike of federal government domination. Alexander tells his audience that America is home to nearly all the great universities in the world, and finishes by playing "Alexander's Rag Time Band", and "God Bless America" on the piano. Next a very different event. Dick Lugar's son speaks to an audience of about 25 in the elegant living room of a local supporter. Small numbers, comfortable domestic venue, calm atmosphere, but questions are pointed.

WEDNESDAY. Wartburg College has hosted and helped me, and today I give modest repayment in guest lectures. Local television arrives, records interview, films part of lecture and invites me to be part of the live coverage. There was a radio interview this morning, and articles in two Iowa newspapers. The appearance of a United Kingdom academic must be a change from dealing with candidate spin doctors. Attend an evening event for Morry Taylor, a campaign that is not getting much coverage, and that has livened things up by giving away $25,000 in draw prizes. Snow is stacked hard on the smaller roads, and the car slides, shivers as we hit icy potholes. It is a wonder that any Iowan risks taking part in these conditions.

THURSDAY. Bright sunshine. Phil Gramm is suffering the effects of defeat by Pat Buchanan in the recent Louisiana caucuses. His audience in Independence reflects this - a subdued group of about 30 locals, almost outnumbered by journalists on the scent of a wounded candidate. Buchanan's rally in Mason City fills a ballroom with 400 loyalists (and a committed group of opponents). The candidate team engages in a careful caucus training for the enthusiasts.

Buchanan adds humour to his speech with a skill and self-confidence that appears to evade most US politicians. He also puts a message of nationalism that appears strong meat. Walking back to the car I step into a deep puddle of snow-melted water, and drive away cold.

FRIDAY. In Des Moines for meetings with observers and activists. Hit black ice - the result of a melt followed by freezing temperatures.

Slide for ages before stopping centimetres away from the car in front. Slump over wheel and wonder what persuades Iowans to leave their comfortable heated homes in the winter.

SATURDAY. Steve Forbes and Bill Clinton are both in Mason City. Forbes has spent millions of his own on a media campaign. Clinton is making sure that the Republicans do not get all the coverage. His appearance is confident, his speech relaxed, his event attended by thousands.

Forbes is an hour late at the North Iowa State fairgrounds, and then spends more time speaking to journalists before entering the room where his audience waits. His flat delivery is reminiscent of early John Major.

With about one journalist for every two members of the public almost all those Iowans attending appear comfortable talking to camera or giving their thoughts to the print journalists. The Forbes campaigners show little sense of grassroots Iowa caucus organisation. The melting snow and ice, and heavy campaign vehicles have churned the car park. Watch the yellow mud ooze in between the laces of my shoe. Wonder why Iowans put themselves through this.

SUNDAY. An orchestrated Bob Dole rally. Students bussed in, "home made" banners handed out.

The warm-up man shouts we are here "to elect the President of the free world". The audience is good, the media are present, the candidate is obliging, the motions are gone through, but the emotions are not stirred. Stop the car on the way home. Wind nearly rips the door off as I open it, and gives the answer to my steering problems. Continue on journey cautiously, Iowa-style.

MONDAY. Caucus in Waterloo. The school classroom accommodates a crush of 170 people. A straw poll is taken, delegates are elected to go to the county caucus, which will in its turn send members to state level, and then to the national meeting. These voters have turned up because they believe in this process. They have seen the candidates, they wish to present motions to be passed on which just might influence the national party platform. Forbes comes in fourth in the straw poll, Dole, Buchanan, Alexander, organised on the ground, take first three spots. These caucuses have been the perfect interface of manipulation and sincerity. At 10.30pm it seems almost balmy outside. Recall being told that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

Philip John Davies Reader in American studies at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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