MICHELLE BACHMANN. In mid-afternoon on New Year's Eve, candidate Bachmann was scheduled to appear at her campaign headquarters near Des Moines to participate with her volunteers in get-out-the-vote phone calls. Since this was the only publicly listed event for Bachmann until a post-caucus party on Tuesday evening, I figured that I better go see Bachmann in action in what might be my only opportunity to do so. Sure enough, when I arrived, Bachmann was "energizing" volunteers, posing for photographs with anyone and everyone, and hugging people. Make no mistake about it: Michelle Bachmann is a world-class hugger, who hugs with what seems to be genuine warmth and grace. She hugged young children, teenagers, and men and women of all ages. I am confident that she would have hugged me, too, but it was early in my four-day visit to Iowa and I shrunk back and avoided a Bachmann hug
After Bachmann's hugging and photo-op spree at her headquarters, I mentioned to one of her staff that no further pre-caucus appearances had been posted on the on-line Des Moines Register schedule of candidates' campaign events. I knew that new events periodically appeared on the Register's schedule, which reflected, I assumed, campaigns making last-minute arrangements about how best to allocate their candidates' time. So I inquired whether the Bachmann campaign planned any more public appearances in the coming three days. In response, the aide asked me whether I was a journalist. No, I replied. Then he asked me whether I was a part of Occupy Wall Street. I again said no, wondering which affiliation would have been more unsettling to him. The aide finally told me that I could worship on Sunday with Bachmann at a church some 90 miles south of Des Moines, but that she wouldn't be making a speech. There might, he said, be a meet-and-greet event in a Des Moines restaurant on Monday.
Bachmann's failure to have any publicly scheduled events in the last three days before caucus night seemed odd to me at the time, but I think that I came to a better understanding over the next few days. A local TV reporter told me that the Bachmann campaign have been unnerved when disappointedly few people had attended a recent Bachmann campaign event. The campaign's strategy was to concentrate on news media interviews -- which, of course, makes sense for all candidates, because a TV or even radio interview can generally reach more people than most in-person appearances can. In the last few days before the caucuses, Bachmann's public appearances would essentially be limited to meet-and-greets in small stores, restaurant-bars, or lunch places, all sites that were free of charge. When regular customers were augmented by some Bachmann supporters whom the campaign asked to attend, Bachmann's appearance would seem to have generated a crowd.
Sure enough, on Monday I attended a Bachmann meet-and-greet at "Paula's Maid-Rite Restaurant" in West Des Moines. This diminutive lunch place had seating for about 15 people, but at least 40 people had crammed themselves into it. Bachmann, accompanied by the minimum of a dozen or so reporters and camera/microphone operators that seemed to be joined at the hip of every candidate, worked her way through Paula's place and appeared to be a subject of much enthusiastic interest. But the adoption of tactics relying exclusively on such appearances reflected that Bachmann's Iowa campaign was not going well. Bachmann finished last among the six active candidates at Tuesday's caucuses, and she withdrew the next day.
RICK SANTORUM. Candidate Santorum claims to have made 381 campaign appearances in Iowa in the past year, including 36 at Pizza Ranch restaurants. Santorum's busy public schedule during my Iowa stay enabled me to attend four of his appearances, all of which drew significantly smaller crowds than Mitt Romney's attracted and significantly less enthusiastic audiences than Ron Paul's events did. I liked the format of Santorum events: A speech of 15 to 20 minutes, answering questions for another 15 to 20 minutes, and then shaking hands with well-wishers as the candidate departed for his next appearance down the road.
The central tenets of the four Santorum speeches I heard were essentially the same. American exceptionalism is a given, and the country should pursue "e pluribus unum" instead of celebrating "diversity." Compromise in getting things done in Washington is acceptable as long as core principles are not sacrificed. Santorum confessed that he was not a "perfect conservative" because he had made voting mistakes during his congressional career (e.g., supporting No Child Left Behind). More than any other candidate, Santorum wore his religion on his sleeve, and on occasion, it seemed to me, he advocated a vision of a Christian America that some might feel to be uncomfortably parallel to the current Islamic regime in Iran.
Santorum varied his stump speeches significantly more than Mitt Romney, whose standard stump speeches -- I saw two of them -- seemed to be repeated almost word-for-word. At the fourth Santorum appearance that I attended (in a Pizza Ranch in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona the evening before caucus night), Santorum proceeded as usual--giving his stump speech and answering questions while standing in the doorway of a 25-by-20-foot room crowded with perhaps 80 Iowans and 10 or so journalists and camera/microphone operators. But there were more people amidst the salad bars and booths in other parts of the restaurant, and Santorum announced that he was going to address them once he had finished with us. So, after he concluded speaking and answering questions in the room into which I had been crammed, Santorum moved to the other part of the restaurant and addressed that crowd, mentioning the same tenets, but in a different order and with different emphases. Hearing Santorum give consecutive stump speeches at a single Pizza Ranch late on Monday certainly lent credence to the narrative of Santorum's indefatigable campaigning in Iowa. And I thought that it was a welcome touch that his two speeches were not carbon copies of one another.
In the four Santorum appearances I observed, he seemed authentic and sincere, but also a bit stiff and un-charismatic. His attempts to evoke cheers and enthusiasm from his audiences typically fell somewhat flat; by contrast, Ron Paul's libertarian supporters regularly broke into applause, cheers, and chanting while he spoke. Santorum occasionally spoke self-deprecatingly. Unlike the other campaigns that could afford buses, he said, he rode in "Chuck's Truck," a pick-up truck driven by a staunch Iowa supporter. He also unashamedly asked for help: "If you like my ideas, then caucus for me Tuesday night. Talk to your friends and neighbors at church and in the grocery store, and encourage them to support me, too. I need your help. Put up a Santorum sign in your yard. Wear a Santorum sticker. Get the word out. I need your help. I really do."
RICK PERRY. Rick Perry rivaled Bachman in his one-on-one campaigning skills. Although not a hugger, Perry was a wonderful hand-shaker with a winning smile and an easy manner that was hard to resist. But this well-dressed and very handsome man stumbled a bit in the one 11-minute stump speech that I heard him deliver. Perry was the only candidate I saw who visibly referred to notes in giving his stump speech. Perhaps he was still hearing footsteps from his much-noted debate fumbles that seem to have doomed his candidacy.
Why would Gingrich adopt a strategy of little to no public speaking--as Bachman did -- when one of the strengths of his candidacy has been his public speaking and debating ability? At the second Gingrich event that I witnessed, after Newt concluded his articulate three-minute statement of reasons why Iowans should support him on caucus night, a member of the audience raised his hand to ask a question. Gingrich leaned over to an aide and asked, "Am I supposed to take questions?" The aide shook his head, told Gingrich that he and his wife should move to the next room for promised photo opportunities, and that is what Gingrich did.
As I was leaving the restaurant/bar, I sought out the men's room and saw a tall, well-built man in his 30s with a telltale earpiece standing near the door. "Is this the men's room?" I inquired. "Yes," he replied. "Can I go in?" "Of course," he said. I entered the small men's room, and, seeing the man follow me in, said, "Oh, you're going to use it, too. Just for a moment," I continued, "I thought that you might be a Gingrich security man, and that he was in here." "He is and I am," he replied very quietly and pointed to the stall. From being thought by a Bachmann aide to be a journalist or an Occupy Wall Street protestor, I now was thought to be a threat to former Speaker Gingrich's safety!
RON PAUL. Ron Paul is a "movement candidate." When he passes from the political scene, another individual should be able to replace him as the candidate of the contemporary libertarian movement. In contrast, when Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum pass from the political scene, there will be no "movement" to continue.
Paul's campaign appearances evoked enthusiasm and excitement at levels unmatched at other candidates' events. Loud and enthusiastic cheering and chanting punctuated his speeches. And his audience seemed to be disproportionately young and male.
Why are young people attracted to the "movement" that Ron Paul represents? My hunch is that young people's embrace of this movement candidacy is the product of long years of anti-government and especially anti-BIG government rhetoric that Ronald Reagan popularized some three decades ago. The candidate Ron Paul has little to do with young people's support for him; they are attracted by the libertarian ideas that he represents.
One fervent volunteer at Paul's campaign headquarters in Ankeny, Iowa, told me that he had decided to devote his life to the libertarian cause. He had quit his job to become a full-time volunteer in the Paul campaign. He also reported that he had once spoken with candidate Paul for about 10 minutes about the celebrated Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and his economic theories. He suggested that he found Paul a somewhat aloof individual, but that it was the libertarian ideas, not Paul's personality, that mattered.
Ron Paul's apparent practice of not taking questions as he arrives at or departs from a campaign appearance seems to illustrate his aloofness. When candidates approached or departed from campaign appearances, a throng of journalists, camera/microphone operators, and ordinary citizens moved along with them. Journalists and citizens posed questions to the walking candidate and some citizens sought an autograph or handshake. Candidates responded to this environment in different ways, but all of them except Paul replied to some questioners, occasionally stopped or slowed down to shake hands and sign autographs, and generally tried to acknowledge the accompanying throng in some way. After I saw Paul speak briefly at a high school, I followed him and his accompanying throng through the parking lot. He looked steadfastly in the direction in which he was striding, acknowledged none of the questions or outstretched hands, entered his waiting vehicle, and rode off. While Paul was walking, I overheard one reporter ask a colleague whether the candidate was doing "his usual thing" and ignoring everyone. The answer was "yes."
MITT ROMNEY. Candidate Romney has been and is the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and his campaign appearances reflected that status. He had bigger crowds, larger venues, and better orchestrated events. I attended Romney appearances late on Monday night and early on caucus day, and I was impressed. He was a good speaker -- not quite an orator -- with some nice punch lines and a good sense of how to shift rhetorical gears in a way that kept his audience's attention. In both appearances his wife and four of his five adult sons accompanied him, along with Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who did a nice job introducing Romney. (An aside: Thune seemed photogenic, articulate, and potentially a credible presidential or vice-presidential candidate in the future.)
As already mentioned, Mitt's 11-minute stump speech varied hardly at all the two times I heard it. He began with an introduction of his family, including the explanation that his fifth son is a medical resident who couldn't get time off to accompany the Romney family on the campaign trail. He lavished praise on his wife, including a couple of endearing lines about their courtship and decades-long marriage. Next he criticized Obama's performance, noting that the president had said early in 2009 that he would turn the American economy around by 2012 or take responsibility for failing to do so. "I'm here to collect on that," Romney declared to enthusiastic applause and cheers. Then Romney turned to a few passages in what he said was his favorite patriotic song, "American the Beautiful," and explicated them before concluding his speech by thanking the crowd for their support.
Having finished speaking, Romney patiently worked his way around the platform on which had spoken, leaning over to shake hands and autograph books and posters and the like. As music played over loud speakers, Romney lingered considerably longer for these tasks than most other candidates did. I was struck both times I heard Romney speak that his good and punchy -- but somewhat short -- speech seemed to end a bit abruptly and that it was somewhat less substantial or policy-oriented than Santorum's. Even son, I was impressed by Romney's speaking ability. I don't think he's in the class of Obama as an orator, but the man can give a speech and give it well. The Obama folks should not underestimate their probable Republican opponent.