Through some stroke of luck*, I've made it to a caucus location at an evangelical church in Johnson, Iowa—just down the street from Rick Santorum's caucus night party at the Stoney Creek Inn. The stage is still set for Christmas services—there are five Christmas trees on stage, and a baby grand piano; the place is about three-quarters full. Santorum's wife, Karen, is here and, by all accounts, she gave voters the hard sell (although it was Santorum's Florida campaign chair who gave the official endorsement speech).
One quirk of the caucus system is that, at each location, each candidate has an official endorser. An endorsers' pitch can have a big impact on how voters come down. None of the voters I spoke with were 100 percent sure who they were going to vote for. Here are four snapshots from the crowd:
Tara Helwig: "I'm not completely sure. I'm swayed a little, but it's possible I'd switch." Her candidate for now? "Mitt Romney. I just kinda feel like"—she motions to her friend sitting next to her—"we were discussing this. He's the one with the most experience in the area I'm most concerned about." That's the economy. "I'm not saying for sure; I'm not saying definitely. I chatted with [Ann Romney] and she answered some of my questions very well." But not her questions on Santorum's experience on the economy. That's key. She voted for Romney in 2008, too.
Lee Sellneyer: "I guess for me, maybe Romney and Santorum." He'd met Karen Santorum a few moments earlier, and it's part of the reason he's thinking of voting for him. "She basically just talked about his issues, the economy, right to life. I mentioned being NRA and she said she was. I'm impressed that she's doing it. It's a lot of effort." He voted for Huckabee in 2007.
Alan and Barbara Morton: "I think we're getting close," says Alan, wearing a Packers hat. They're leaning toward Rick Santorum "because we talked to his wife," Alan says. "We've been flipping back and forth between Herman Cain and Rick Perry and Rick Santorum." Their one concern about Perry: He's not on the ballot on Virginia—and just as important is how he responded to that. They docked points from Perry when he filed suit in federal court to reverse the state GOP's decision, pointing out that it contradicted his 10th Amendment arguments. They voted for Fred Thompson in 2008, "and then he dropped out."
Liz Smith: "I'm not 100 percent," but she's leaning toward Ron Paul. "I just think he's different—he's way different from what we have." What could sway her away from Paul? "Possibly hearing more of the candidates' stances on education." (As it happens, that's pretty much all Bachmann's endorser talks about.) Smith voted for Obama in 2008, but says she won't make that mistake again.
As I write this, they're voting. It's mostly quiet, although one guy is concerned that the press will be allowed to vote (we won't be). The endorsements were fairly low-key, the highlight probably coming when Ron Paul's endorser bragged that Paul had voted to authorize the use of force to go after "Obama." It was a slip-up, and he apologized for it, but he was greeted with laughs and a round of applause.
*By which I mean "no traffic"; these events are open to the public and press—they even allow you to register to vote right before you go in. Voter fraud, it turns out, only becomes a serious issue when you allow Democrats in.
As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.
Newt Gingrich occasionally smoked marijuana as a graduate student at Tulane. As he explained later, "that was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era." Hey, it was the '60s. So it made a certain amount of sense that as a back-bench congressman, he penned a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for the drug to be legalized for medicinal purposes:
We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical supervision, from a regulated source. The medical prohibition does not prevent seriously ill patients from employing marijuana; it simply deprives them of medical supervision and denies them access to a regulated medical substance. Physicians are often forced to choose between their ethical responsibilities to the patient and their legal liabilities to federal bureaucrats.
Your field guide to today's madness, plus some telling stats about each candidate.
Tim MurphyJan. 3, 2012 7:00 AM
On Tuesday, after 13 debates, five different front-runners, and one unforgettable Gloria Allred press conference, the GOP presidential race will finally take its first, tentative steps toward clarity when upwards of 100,000 Iowans participate in the first-in-the-nation caucuses. A win on Tuesday isn't exactly a ticket to the White House—no Republican caucus victor has gone on to win the presidency in the modern era—but a poor performance will almost certainly mark the end of the road for candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Here's how it works: As in any election, each voter is assigned to a precinct. A city like Waterloo would have multiple precincts; a flyspeck town in northwest Iowa might have just one (there are 1,774 in all). To participate, you show up at 7 p.m. and, after listening to speeches from fellow precinct members on behalf of their favored candidates, cast your ballot. Often, the speakers are respected community leaders whose words carry some weight; revered former Iowa State wrestling coach Jim Gibbons, for instance, told me he might speak on behalf of Santorum at his precinct. Democratic caucuses usually entail multiple ballots, but Republicans will vote just once.
So what should you watch for? Here's a quick look at where the candidates stand, and how they've spent their final week before the big vote:
Rick Santorum's final pitch to Iowa voters on Monday centered, as you would expect, on social issues. In Polk City, a farming community north of Des Moines, he was joined by 13 of the 21 Duggars—stars of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, and celebrities among conservative home-schoolers. It was folks like the Duggars who pushed Mike Huckabee over the top in 2008. By the numbers: Number of Iowa counties visited, out of 99: 99; number of Pizza Ranch franchises visited: 33; number of sleeves on his sweater of choice: 0; number of members of his immediate family, out of 9, who do not belong to the National Rifle Association: 1; percentage of supporters who say they will definitely show up for their caucus: 76.
After her triumph at the Ames Straw Poll in August, Michele Bachmannlooked like a serious contender for the Republican nomination, but her campaign has since fallen apart. Bachmann's top Iowa aide switched his support to Ron Paul late last week in a move that underscored just how dysfunctional her organization in the state was. She says she's in the race for the long haul, but barring a miracle, she's pretty much done. By the numbers: Percentage of Iowa Republicans who said they'd caucus for her on July 10: 25; percentage of Iowa Republicans who said the same on January 1: 7; salary paid to former top strategist Ed Rollins, who now says he never would have worked for her if had just Googled her: $90,000.
For a moment—a brief, eminently fascinating moment—Newt Gingrich looked like he might be the next Republican nominee. But after being swamped by negative ads from Ron Paul and a pro-Romney super-PAC, Gingrich has fallen back to earth hard. In Atlantic, Iowa, he was put on the defensive by his own supporters, who were concerned about his past support for global warming legislation, and his quasi-lobbying work for Freddie Mac (among other things). Gingrich is hoping outrage over a nonexistent EPA dust-regulation campaign will translate into support at the caucuses. By the numbers: Percentage points dropped from mid-December high-water mark: 20; number of days in between the launch of his campaign and the opening of a campaign office in Iowa: 183; date on which he told ABC's Jake Tapper "I'm going to be the nominee": January December 1.
And then there's Mitt Romney, who stands to all but lock up the Republican nomination with a win tonight. He'd be in pretty good shape with a loss, too, provided he at least outperforms a couple of key rivals. After initially keeping his distance from Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor poured considerable resources into the state over the last month of the race and plans to spend Tuesday night in Des Moines—a sign he expects to do well. As one Romney aide told Politico's Roger Simon, "Iowa is about eliminating Gingrich and Perry without us having to spend a lot of money to do so." By the numbers: Number of different Republican rivals he has trailed in the polls in Iowa at some point or another: 5; amount, in millions, spent by his super-PAC on ads targeting Newt Gingrich: $3.5; number of staffers it takes to hold his chair in place; 1; number of chemicals it takes to hold his hair in place: 0; percentage of Iowa voters who said they'd vote for him on July 11: 18; percent who said they'd vote for him on January 1: 18.
How to watch: Check this space, and Twitter, for updates. Gavin Aronsen (@garonsen) and I (@timothypmurphy) will be reporting from Iowa all day. By 10 p.m., we should have some idea of how the night will turn out.
Mitt Romney has a habit of posing for applause before it begins, a quirk that's made only slightly less awkward by the fact that over the last five years he's become pretty good at guessing when the applause will come. When he's just delivered a jab, such as—seizing on President Obama's suggestion that he'd be a one-term president if he didn't turn things around—"we've come to collect!" there's a brief moment, before the hands start coming together, where Romney stops, smiles in an "Oh boy, I really said it, didn't I?" kind of way, drops both arms to his side, and rotates 90 degrees to receive the adulation. The energy isn't infectious, but his message is sinking in with Iowans—perhaps because he's gotten a rhetorical makeover from an unlikely source.
Even as his allied super-PAC spent $3.5 million hammering Newt Gingrich on the Iowa airwaves, Romney himself is channeling the former House speaker's bombast. Belying his reputation as a lily-livered moderate, he packs his speeches with red meat. In Council Bluffs on Sunday, he said that President Obama has no jobs plan (let me Google that for you), and that Obama will create a society that "substitutes envy for ambition." At one point, he told the crowd about a little old song he's quite fond of:
I have no idea what Rick Santorum told the crowd at Reising Sun Cafe in Polk City, Iowa, this morning. My guess is the former Pennsylvania senator's message was a lot like the one he's brought to Iowa's other 98 counties—he's a consistent social conservative, architect of the partial-birth abortion ban, Iran's worst nightmare, and a culture war veteran with the scars to prove it. But the diner was impossibly small, and so I was left standing outside in the Arctic chill with about 50 supporters and undecided voters, and maybe half as many press. Santorum was just a side-show in Polk City, though. That's because the Duggars showed up.
That would be the Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting fame, a conservative Christian family from Arkansas. Twelve of the 19 Duggar children are with their dad Jim Bob in Iowa campaigning for Santorum, all dressed in their Sunday best—the girls in ankle-length skirts and the boys with shirts-and-ties. Everyone knows who Jim Bob Duggar is, but he introduces himself to everyone who walks up to him nonetheless: "I'm Jim Bob Duggar, and we have a show called 19 Kids and Counting." The Duggars duck into a boutique shop next door to the Santorum event and the whole gang takes turns posing for photos with Santorum volunteers and fans. "There's Josiah, he's got a gray jacket!" a woman says, pointing at one of the older Duggar boys. "I watch that show all the time. They're really strong Christians. I love them," says another.
"Everyone say 'Pick Rick!'": Tim MurphyMeanwhile, Jim Bob holds court. "Rick Santorum is someone with a proven track record to stand up for what's right, for lower taxes, less government intervention in our lives. He's always been an advocate for the unborn. He's somebody that he authored the bill that banned partial birth abortion. That's something that nobody else can say. Whereas Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he set up a Romneycare program, and included a program where any girl could go in and get an abortion for $50." (Full context here.)
In 2008, he and the family (there were only 17 kids then) traveled to Iowa ito volunteer for Mike Huckabee and, truth be told, Jim Bob would have preferred the Arkansas Governor run again. "We begged Huckabee to run this time, but he felt that this was not the time for him to run," he says. "So we've been looking for a candidate that has our values, and somebody that's articulate, that has energy, that has a proven track record to do what's right—and Rick Santorum's the man." They plan on checking out a few more events, and then hitting the phone lines on Santorum's behalf. Jim Bob's oldest son, Josh, a car dealer, came up with the idea to rechristen the family bus the "Santourin' Express," and the thing looks so official—the candidate's website is splashed in big letters on both sides—that a few voters walked up to it expecting to meet the candidate.
In finail days before the Iowa caucuses, campaigns have dispatched their surrogates to Iowa in droves. Chris Christie parachuted in for Mitt Romney. Rand Paul's stumping for his dad. Rick Perry's campaign dispatched Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. They're effective in their own way, but the Duggars represent a unique form of micro-targeting that's perfect in Iowa. Like Santorums—and a disproportionately high number of Iowa conservatives—the Duggars home-school their kids in order to provide them with an education based on Christian principles. (Of the Santorum supporters I spoke with in Polk City, Michele Bachmann, another home-schooler, was the overwhelming second choice.) Home-schoolers helped push Huckabee over the top in 2008; if Santorum pulls an the upset on Tuesday, he'll have folks like Jim Bob to thank.