Tuesday, August 21, 2007

When Edwards and Biden Come to Town, It Changes the Nature of the Diner

When Edwards and Biden Come to Town, It Changes the Nature of the Diner

In science, the Heisenberg effect, or "observer effect," describes a phenomenon in which the observation or measurement of an event changes the very nature of the event.  For example, attaching a meter to an electrical circuit to measure the current inherently changes that current.

Or, in presidential politics, a candidate visiting a diner changes the nature of the diner.

Twin candidate appearances at Iowa City's Hamburg Inn bookended debate weekend as Democrats John Edwards and Joe Biden made the pilgrimage to the retro diner famed for its food and its high-profile campaign visits.  The two events tested, and exceeded, the limits of one-on-one caucus campaigning.

The Hamburg was heavily Heisenberg effected on Friday.  Technically speaking, John Edwards did not even set foot in the Hamburg Inn on Friday night, though Elizabeth Edwards did get in the door for breakfast Saturday morning.  When I arrived 45 minutes before the announced 8:30 p.m. event, several dozen people were already outside the Hamburg, and a glance inside the window showed every seat was full.

"It was such a big crowd, we decided to go outside," said Hamburg Inn owner Dave Panther.  A campaign staffer called for attention and asked the owners of the cars in the prime parking spots just in front of the Hamburg to move.  The feat was accomplished before the Edwards campaign bus arrived.

Elizabeth Edwards had just finished a book reading on the University of Iowa campus and was signing books after the reading.  The crowd outside continued to grow as arrival time approached, with many late arrivals clutching Elizabeth Edwards' books.  Edwards supporter Ed Fallon chatted with members of the waiting crowd.  His Edwards endorsement had made statewide news during the week, but the former gubernatorial candidate had declared his support for Edwards months earlier.  (He accompanied John and Elizabeth Edwards at an Iowa City stop in January.)  Fallon said it had been the campaign's decision to (in campaign parlance) "roll out" the endorsement that week.

The Edwards bus arrived playing the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up."  Fading the track well before its closing line, "you make a dead man come," an announcer skipped the niceties and cut to the chase with a quick "ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, JOHN EDWARDS!!" intro.  Edwards emerged, climbed up a metal stepladder and spoke using a portable PA system connected to his bus.  The speech was a brief, intense, honed version of the Edwards stump speech.  Recent additions include the theme "I can't do this alone, I need your help," and an increased use of the word "lobbyist" since the issue emerged on the national radar screen in recent weeks.  It's hard not to sound populist when you're standing on a stepladder.

The Heisenberg effect may even have extended to the normally friendly, folksy neighborhood mood of the `Burg.  A staffer from a bird-dogging organization reported that some of the wait staff had quietly grumbled about getting stiffed on tips, or even on the whole tab, from patrons who occupied tables for a long time waiting for Edwards.  Edwards did meet briefly with Panther and the wait staff at the door to the bus just before departing, concluding a round of handshakes that reached the front few rows of the crowd of 250 to 300 people.

The handshakes continued as the bus rolled away, with Edwards leaning and reaching out the window.

Other top-tier contenders have gotten inside the Hamburg Inn this cycle.  John McCain (when his prospects looked brighter) made an unannounced stop in May.  Barack Obama visited in April, but he'd be hard-pressed to do a chit-chat session when he drew (he says) 10,000 people to a campus rally that day.

In contrast, Monday morning was classic Hamburg Inn -- though even a crowd half again as big would have changed the mood.  Every seat was full, and a few people were standing, but movement was reasonably easy and comfortable.

I strolled in 15 minutes before the scheduled 7:30 a.m. start and grabbed a seat next to Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and county Democratic chair Brian Flaherty.  Not just any seat -- a seat at the Bill Clinton table, where the former president dined in 2003 and the most wanted seat in the house if you're a Democrat.  (Republicans like the Ronald Reagan table, where the Gipper ate in 1992.)

"I called 100 people," said Biden supporter Mae Schatteman, a small energetic woman in her 80s.  "They better be here."  The crowd, at about 75, came close to matching her goal.

The senator arrived close to on time to solid applause.  Panther started to introduce the senator with some biography, but Biden pshawed the plaudits: "I'm Joe Biden."

In an illustration of just how intimate the Iowa caucuses can be, Biden began speaking literally next to me.  I reached around him and placed my audio recorder on the lunch counter in front of him.  Biden reached down and carefully positioned my recorder about 2 inches away from where I'd set it.

Biden strolled back and forth behind the counter, at arms length from diners, occasionally using the restaurant accoutrements as props.  "If you're moving two trillion dollars of the economy from here to here," he said of health care, "there's going to be winners and losers."  Biden illustrated the shifting trillions by picking up a sugar shaker and moving it from his right to his left.  He emphasized one statement by tapping a salt shaker like a gavel.

The speech was short, the questions were many, and the answers extended.  Biden took roughly a half dozen questions and expounded in depth on each, for as long as ten minutes a question.  That's well over the seven minutes and seven seconds of speaking time Biden had in Sunday's debate.

At one point, Biden noticed a small knot of three or four people waiting outside the front door and interrupted his remarks to urge them to come on in.  A person near the inner door opened it, and the folks outside opened the outer door and entered.  The crowd near the door shifted, but not much, to accommodate the new arrivals.  It was the kind of moment that makes every other state except New Hampshire jealous.

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