Anyone still out there?
Hi, yes, well thanks for stopping back to see if I'm still blogging! Yes, it's been a verrrry long week, and I apologize for the delay in posts.
It seems impossible that it was only a week ago tonight I arrived in Omaha to take part in what turned out to be the (Im)perfect Storm. A week ago, despite Kerry's rise in the polls, we Deanocrats were sure our first-time voters would tip the balance in our favor. And there *were* tons of first-time voters, but they broke for Kerry and Edwards, the "electable" guys.
I spent last weekend in a flurry of activity for Gov. Dean. Friday night, I called Council Bluffs voters to remind them of a noon rally with Dean and Tom Harkin the next day. Saturday, we went to the rally and I saw Dr. Dean speak for the first time live -- I'd seen him last October in Boise, but that didn't count since I was in the overflow room there. After the rally, the Council Bluffs coordinator, Jordan, sent me to the town of Woodbine, population 1400, about an hour north. Over the next two days, I canvassed 118 homes in Woodbine to remind them about the caucus and ask their support for Dean.
Monday morning at 7:30, I was back in Council Bluffs, at one of the busiest intersections in town with several other Deaniacs. We stood holding Dean signs in the 4-degree chill, taking turns getting warm in our cars. After rush hour, I canvassed two neighborhoods in Council Bluffs. Now the focus was definite Dean supporters; we slipped reminders on their doorknobs and spoke to anyone who was at home, inquiring whether they needed a ride to the caucus, thanking them one last time for their support. I left Council Bluffs mid-afternoon to drive to Des Moines for the final hours. Many volunteers stayed on in CB to make final calls and get people to the polls, but to me, Des Moines was a magnet whose pull I couldn't resist. Des Moines is where we'd learn that Dean really did pull it off; where history would record the first victory of the greatest grassroots campaign of our time. As a journalist, historian, and Dean supporter, I had to be there.
I checked into the first Motel 6 I saw, took a shower (those orange hats were warm but, oh, talk about hat hair!) and went to observe one of the caucuses at Valley High School in West Des Moines, a location I chose mainly for its proximity to our after-party at the Val Air Ballroom. As people streamed into the room, I was heartened to see lots of Dean stickers and buttons, and the Dean camp had a nice position staked out near the door. But the other top-tier candidates seemed well represented, too. When the organizers finally asked the throng to break up into preference groups, I was genuinely stunned to see Dean get only 23 people in his corner -- two people shy of viability in this precinct. The local Dean leaders managed to get a Clark supporter and one other person into their camp to attain viability, but it didn't look good. I leaned over to another observer and said, "I hope this isn't representative of what's happening around the state."
Turned out it was. I got in my rental car afterward and heard on the radio that Kerry and Edwards were mopping up votes all over Iowa; that Dean was coming in a distant third; and that Gephardt was toast. The Val-Air thing wasn't starting for a while, so I made a halfhearted attempt to find Dean HQ without a map or directions. Failing that, I headed for the Val Air. People were milling around, muttering about the inexplicable 11th-hour deal between Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards that threw DK's supporters into the Edwards camp, happy that we'd at least beaten Gephardt. People weren't really downcast; we knew a third-place finish was good enough to move forward. Still, it was a fairly subdued and reflective scene.
Then, of course, it happened: A crowd coalesced around the stage. Fistfuls of American flags and pompoms were passed around, and we started chants -- "D-E-A-N, take our country back again" and "No more Bush." We pounded our feet on the floor. We whooped and hollered. The hall took on the air of a high school gym where our team had barely qualified for the playoffs and we were trying to pump ourselves up for the crucial contests ahead.
That was the atmosphere Gov. Dean walked into at about 9:30 Monday night. The place went nuts. Dean said on TV with Diane Sawyer last night that he is not a rock star, but you would've thought differently if you were there in the Val Air Monday night. The next 15 minutes were a blur of yells -- his and ours. It was frequently so loud that it was hard to hear what Dean was saying. The bottom line was this, though: We all left the ballroom buoyed and ready to rock on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona .... yeah! I hit a fast-food drive-through on my way back to the motel and when the clerk saw my Dean button, he sniggered, "You lost tonight." "No we didn't," I said. "We came in third."
When I awoke the next morning, I felt as if I had a slight hangover, even though I hadn't had anything to drink. I got dressed, went out to the lobby for the Des Moines Register, and started reading. "Iowans found Dean too angry, too liberal," Page 1 read. Then, inside, a five-column photo of Dean yelling into the microphone, red face, fist clenched. The accompanying story told of a "screaming address ... Dean's face shot red ... his voice, at times, cracked as he screamed." I turned on the TV and it got worse. Everyone was talking about Dean's rant. Driving back to Omaha to catch my flight, scanning the radio dial, I heard a shock-rock DJ do voiceovers to Dean's speech, basically saying Dean had gone over the edge.
Now I really felt like I had a hangover -- and that I'd entered some weird parallel universe, besides. Sure, Dean had been excited. Yes, he had yelled, just like the rest of us in the room. His speech had not meant to be an address to a Joint Session of Congress. It was a rally, for pete's sake. And yet ... and yet ... the dozens of TV and still cameras had captured evidence that yes, Dean, is an Angry Man. Dean scares little kids. Dean is unelectable.
So all this week, I have been defending Dean - not an easy task as the media replay the most bombastic 15 seconds of his speech over and over and over and over and .... One organizer of a satellite Dean Meet-Up group wrote to tell me he was abandoing Dean because he believes the media will not let Dean live this down. My brother, who likes Dean, warned me not to "drink the Kool-Aid." Meanwhile, Kerry has overtaken Dean's lead in New Hampshire.
But as of last night (Thursday), I think maybe the tide finally turned -- in the PR battle, if not in the polls. Dean appeared with his wife Judy on ABC's Prime Time. He said -- as those of us who were there Monday have been testifying all week -- that although his Monday tirade was hardly presidential, it was meant to be a thanks and a rally cry to those of us (the 3500 kids, he keeps saying) who worked and froze our butts off in Iowa on his behalf. Later, on Letterman, he did the Top 10 list on how he can turn his campaign around. ("Switch to decaf" and "Lift weights and develop an Austrian accent" were the funniest.)
I'm ending this post now so I can address where we go from here ...