by Brian Montopoli
When word went up in the press filing center Friday that Sarah Palin had rolled onto the grounds of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines — unannounced, of course — a group of reporters, chasing a rumor about her location, immediately scampered off, weaving through the swine and cattle barns, dodging stony-faced teenage farmers and piles of pig shit. When we found her, near a row of massive steer, the scrum was already enormous.
As she posed for pictures with fairgoers, Palin insisted to the dozens of reporters jockeying for position around her that she was not there to steal the spotlight — nevermind the fact that she had arrived on the same day that most of the GOP presidential candidates (and thus much of the national political press) were at the fairgrounds. By some miracle, I was jostled into a spot right next to her. I asked if she ever wished she could walk through a state fair unmolested. She didn’t bite, offering only a rote response about how much she values the chance to meet all these good, hardworking Americans. (When I asked Todd Palin the same question, he was more introspective: “This,” he said, “is the life we chose.”)
In Ames the next day, minutes after she had been declared the victor of the Iowa straw poll, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign bus stopped next to the outdoor tent where Mike Huckabee was shooting a “special edition” of his Fox News show. As Bachmann made her way over to the tent, Huckabee was explaining to his Fox News viewers why Iowa deserved its exalted place in the presidential process.
Iowans, he said, were not star-struck by the parade of politicians who sought their votes every four years. This was the most shameless kind of pandering: Huckabee had been swarmed all day as he worked the straw poll. In case the adoring crowds weren’t enough to demonstrate his rock-star status, he had played bass guitar onstage at three of the candidates’ tents (Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty). Now as Bachmann approached, straw poll voters stood on tiptoes around the rope barriers, shooting camera phone pictures and shouting, “We’re praying for you!” at Bachmann.
Bachmann’s greeting for Huckabee was warm but efficient, that of a cocktail party veteran with a hundred dear friends in the room. Over the course of two segments, Huckabee served her up a stream of deferential softballs, never once acknowledging what he surely knows: That the straw poll is a sham. In 2007, Mitt Romney spent lavishly to beat Huckabee here, busing in supporters, paying their entry fees and giving them free food and entertainment. Huckabee went on to embarrass the free-spending Romney in the caucuses, which can’t be bought so easily.
The story was much the same this year: Bachmann, Pawlenty and Ron Paul each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a few thousand votes. (Bachmann even brought in Randy Travis.) Their campaigns knew that the political media, desperate for a hook on which to hang a new narrative, would inflate the results — even as they dismissed them privately. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, that cuts both ways: The day after he came in third place — he got 2,293 votes, while Bachmann got all of 4,823 — he dropped out of the race.
As Bachmann began to leave the stage, Don Lemon, the CNN anchor, was standing in front of me. He was holding up his phone, showing his cameraman a Gawker post about his claim that Bachmann’s security detail (and her husband Marcus) had shoved him earlier in the day.
Lemon was now clearly itching for a repeat incident. A Bachmann staffer had asked reporters to stay behind a rope barrier erected to give Bachmann a path back to her bus; Lemon told his cameraman to start rolling, and then promptly stepped under it. The staffer tried to physically restrain Lemon, who stated that he was on public property, asked sarcastically, “Are you a police officer?” Eventually, an actual police officer came over and stood in front of Lemon. Bachmann and her security detail passed by in a blur, the candidate ignoring Lemon’s shouted questions.
Then came Marcus Bachmann. As he walked by, Bachmann turned toward Lemon and gave him a taunting look. “Oh, yes, you’re the one who elbowed me before,” he said. Lemon asked Bachmann if he wanted to talk about the incident. Bachmann turned his head away and kept walking, leaving Lemon clutching his microphone, his arm extended over the police officer’s shoulder.
Once the Bachmann entourage was safely aboard the bus, the candidate came to the door to bid goodbye to her supporters. A screamer during her rallies, Bachmann is a model of clipped efficiency offstage, her warmness edging toward the perfunctory. She spoke briefly, offering promises to her supporters that she’d be back soon. As the door started to close you could just briefly see her smile drop as she turned to walk back into the bus, her face a mask of steely determination.
Photo courtesy of IowaPolitics.com.