So you want to see a presidential candidate, get close enough to look him (or her) in the eye, and actually be part of the foot-stomping, sign-waving, hand-clapping, ear-splitting, democracy-participating throng that most Americans never encounter? It's simple just pack your parka and come to Iowa.
With the ever-influential Iowa caucuses scheduled earlier than usual (on January 3), and both party's races hot enough to melt the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair, this place will remain full of presidential candidates, from Mitt to Rudy, Hillary to Barack, Huckabee to Edwards, maybe even Dennis (Kucinich) and Ron (Paul), for weeks to come.
For almost a year, nary a day has gone by or so it seems to us Iowans without a public appearance by one of the 16 candidates (at last count) expounding on the war and the economy, immigration and terrorism, health care and education, and, of course, agriculture and ethanol. As I type on this blustery November day in Des Moines, John Edwards is rallying with picketing nurses at a Dubuque hospital while, in western Iowa, Rudy Giuliani is at a "meet-and-greet" at the B&L Vintage Brew and Sugar Shack in Rock Rapids.
What better reason is there to visit Iowa in December? To see who's around, check the candidates' campaign schedules, listed daily in the Des Moines Register (in print or, even better, online) or on your favorite candidate's website. At www.fred.08.com, for example, you can find out if there's a Fred Thompson event within a five-mile radius of your zip code (although the event may not feature Fred in the flesh, and for details, you must first sign up as a "Friend of Fred.")
At most of these events, you can actually just show up anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour ahead, depending on the type of event, the venue's size, the candidate's popularity and his or her reputation for punctuality. Sometimes, you're supposed to register online with the campaign or pick up free tickets (at a campaign office or a less likely location, such as the bike shop where I found tickets last summer.) But in my experience (five caucus seasons to date) registration and tickets are less a requirement than a way to capture your contact information so you can be barraged with automated phone calls, e-mails, fliers and home visits from canvassers.
Before attending an event, be prepared to step into what feels like a Hollywood set. One minute you're in quiet Des Moines or even quieter Rock Rapids. The next minute, and with little effort, you're in a humble cafe, high school gym, community center or convention hall that is part of a major media event with famous faces popping up in the crowd of ordinary Iowans. And not just famous politicians and television reporters either. Singer Paul Simon has opened for Chris Dodd; John Legend for Obama; and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne for Edwards.
You also have to be prepared to become an unwitting prop. If you're not careful, you can find yourself sitting on a hay bale, holding a handwritten sign, written not in your own hand, which says "Husbands for Hillary!" Sure, you can politely decline to hold a sign, wear a campaign sticker, clap, cheer or stomp. But there's nothing you can do about your face showing up weeks later in a campaign brochure or video, as part of a crowd of smiling, well-fed Iowans providing a handy backdrop for the candidate.
As you leave the rally, town hall, speech or house party, you may be pursued by an eager young campaign staffer with clipboard in hand, asking if you've made up your mind, if you'll caucus for his or her candidate. Be nice to these kids. For months, they've been living far from home, bunking in short-lease apartments and Iowans' spare bedrooms, running on cookies, caffeine and hope. Soon, some may lose their jobs.
To get a real sense of Iowa democracy in action, you might also observe one of the caucus-training sessions offered by community groups and campaigns (remember, though, only Iowa residents can caucus). The Clinton campaign is using a reportedly amusing how-to-caucus video showing Bill Clinton pacing on a treadmill while a voice says "Exercising is hard. Caucusing is easy" and Hillary Clinton trying to sing the national anthem while a voice says "Singing is hard. Caucusing is easy."
Another option is to visit the State Historical Museum in Des Moines which has a special exhibit on the caucuses. The museum also is hosting the debut of a theatrical production filled with stock caucus characters including: an Iowa farmer named "Eldon Wise" and his family (a.k.a. typical Iowa caucus-goers); political candidates, left, right and center; Marlon, an unemployed factory worker; and Mavis, a waitress at the local cafe. The production is called, naturally, "Caucus! The Musical."
If you're going to be in Des Moines during caucus season, here are some helpful travel tips:
Where to find the campaign crowd: 801 Steak & Chop House, 801 Grand Avenue, (515) 288-6000 Centro, 1011 Locust Street, (515) 248-1780 The Cosmopolitan Lounge at the Suites of 800 Locust hotel, 800 Locust Street, (515) 288-5800
Hot spots: Dos Rios, 316 Court Avenue, (515) 282-2995 Lucca, 420 East Locust Street, (515) 243-1115 Gateway Market and Cafe, 2002 Woodland Avenue, (515) 422-5106
Not-quite-as-hot but good: Sage, 6587 University Avenue, Windsor Heights, (515) 255-7722 Thai Flavors, 1254 East 14th Street, (515) 262-2658 Star Bar, 2811 Ingersoll Avenue, (515) 244-0790
Neighborhood joints: Tursi's Latin King, 2200 Hubbell Avenue, (515) 266-4466 The Drake Diner, 1111 25th Street, (515) 277-1111 Flying Mango, 4345 Hickman Road, (515) 255-4111
Best Breakfast: Waveland Cafe, 4708 University Avenue, (515) 279-4341
Lodging: Many Des Moines hotels are sold out in early January before the caucuses, although some have rooms in mid-to-late December, including:
Embassy Suites Hotel on the River, 101 East Locust Street, (515) 244-1700 Holiday Inn Express at Drake, 1140 24th Street, 515-255-4000
As of mid-November, rooms were available in early January at hotels in suburban Des Moines including:
Wildwood Lodge, 11431 Forest Avenue, Clive (515) 222-9876 Comfort Suites at Living History Farms, 11167 Hickman Rd, Urbandale, (515) 276-1126