Why is John McCain in Iowa when polls show him trailing? Will he again defend his opponent Barack Obama from personal attacks as he did Friday? What is his response to an Alaska legislative report charging his running mate Sarah Palin with abuse of power?
Iowa Independent's John Deeth was live at McCain's Saturday morning event in Davenport. The Republican nominee insists he'll win Iowa, but had no comment about the Palin report. Nearly half the speech was attacks on Obama, but those were mostly issue based, and while the audience was a-hootin' and a-hollerin, no explicit Obama attacks were overheard.
Before McCain's arrival, a minister delivering an invocation said, "There are plenty of people around the world who are praying to their god, be they Hindu, Buddah, or Allah, that (McCain's) opponent wins. I pray that you step forward and honor your own name."
9:52 and hello from Davenport. The event is scheduled to start at 10:30. Too bad it's not utdoors, two blocks away on the banks of the Mississippi on a perfect fall day. Instead we're in Davenport's River Center, where my best row counting and multiplication estimates seating for 1500 or so.
You can literally see Barack Obama's state from here (if not Russia). "We're living in darkness," says Mercer County. Illinois Republican vice chair Don Vickrey. But he says there is hope. Some of his fellow parishioners skipped out on a rare chance to see their candidate, choosing to paint yard signs instead.
So, with pundits rapidly moving Iowa into the Safe Democratic column, why is McCain making his third visit to the state? The pollsters "aren't talking to true Iowans," said Janice Levsen of Muscatine. "He needs to show us he cares about us, because we care about him."
But, even if that's the case, why a media market that's half in Obama's home state? Why not heavily GOP western Iowa? Ramon Perez of Davenport responds with his own question--"why go where you know you're going to win? To me, Iowa's always been a Republican state." Perez, a retired veteran from Davenport, is carrying a homemade sign calling for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the Cedar Rapids McCain-Palin event last months, with its strict no homemade signs rule, this event appears to encourage homemade signs. McCain is "not a quitter," says Vickrey.
Signs for the local candidates are also in evidence. None seem to say the word "Republican," though the candidate for sheriff has some small elephants. No signs for congressional candidate Dave Hartsuch in sight, though I saw some in yards on the way in. Hartsuch is considered a longshot against freshman incumbent Bruce Braley, so even the boost a congressional contender theory fails to explain Davenport. (Why not, say, a central Iowa stop with Tom Latham?) There are some hot legislative races in the QC, but that's way below the presidential nominee radar screen.
So, what about yesterday, when McCain (to his credit) rebuked his own supporters for personal attacks on Obama and called his rival "a good family man"? "McCain took a step above the rhetoric to show he's the better person," said Perez. "We want a clean fight, not a dirty fight."
But Mark Gardner of Colona, Ill. says Republicans are frustrated. "People want him to go after the real Obama." Is the campaign getting too personal? "Only if you're a Democrat," says a friend of Gardner's, who moves ahead in line before I get his name.
Gardner likes McCain on economic issues. Small business, rags to riches... we need those breaks," he says, adding that he trusts McCain on defense.
But when asked about the bailout bill, the cluster of people moving forward in line. One woman, who says she's undecided, just shakes her head. "I guess I didn't buy a fancy enough house," says one man.
This appears to be McCain's first scheduled event of the day, so we may get his first response to the ethics charges against his running mate Sarah Palin. The Alaska governor has already spoken, a little:
As the governor left her hotel around 8:30 this morning to board her idling campaign bus, NBC’s Matthew Berger asked, “Governor, did you abuse your power?”
Ms. Palin paused at the entrance to the bus and shouted back a response, which was picked up by a boom microphone: "No, and if you read the report you'll see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member. You gotta read the report, sir."
Droppin those closin consonants.
10:29. The security is tightening and the program is starting with the patriotic rituals that Republican events always include. The troops presenting the colors, it should be noted, are wearing red berets. This gives us a break from the music, which was generic country by one of the guys with a big hat. (I used to know country music, 20 or so years ago when I was a DJ.)
The invocation is interesting, as I hear keyboards going all around me:
"There are plenty of people around the world who are praying to their god, be they Hindu, Buddah, or Allah, that (McCain's) opponent wins. I pray that you step forward and honor your own name." Ends with "in Jesus' name."
Wow. McCain does not appear to have been here yet to catch that, but wow. The preacher's name appears to be a Pastor Conrad of the Evangelical Free Church.
10:39. State Rep. Steve Olson gets to speak-I believe he's unopposed. Says `06 was a rough year for GOP, but "I believe we can take over the Iowa House."
Next is Ross Paustian, House 84 challenger against Elesha Gayman who he doesn't name or attack; just a generic tax and spend set of remarks. We also get Jamie Van Fossen and Senate Challenger Shawn "the Hammer" Hamerlink. The Hammer, challenging Frank Wood, is high energy. He says McCain "and Palin" will be here soon. "And Palin?" we mutter at each other on Press Row. The consensus is Hamerlink mis-spoke, as my schedule shows Palin in Pennsylvania.
"We must elect people who do not come to your pockets to fix their problems." Thus far, no one has said Word One about a specific opponent, though Hamerlink does get in a dig at Bill and Hillary.
11:01 and, having run out of legislative candidates we've got a time-killing cheering contest going on. What about Dave Hartsuch? Doesn't an incumbent state senator and congressional candidate get some love? The speaking ends and we get loud dramatic fanfare music, like I'm watching movie credits. The national press corps is still not filing in. When they do get here, there's a picturesque backdrop -- hay bales and an antique John Deere -- for the national TV crews.
11:08 and the first trickle of national TV techs. Now the writers, already booted up and racing into the seats in front of me.
"Right Now" by Van Halen. Same stage song as Cedar Rapids, despite Sammy Hagar's disapproval. Does the family values crowd know the album title spells a dirty word?
OK, he's here 11:11.
"The political pundits have been wrong several times, we are going to win the state of Iowa." Three My Friends so far.
"Change and reform is coming to Iowa with John McCain and Sarah Palin." Praise for Palin but no comment on the report. My Friends = 5.
"The American People Are Angry," and Johns sounds that way too. "You're angry and I'm angry too, and when SP and I get to the WH we'll turn Washington upside down."
USA! chant foes up. My Friends = 6.
Talks about mortgage refinancing. "The funs aren't new but the priorities will be, for working families and homeowners."
"The status quo is not on the ballot, we need change. The question is which direction will we go?" (We Want John! chant)
"Which candidate's experience in life makes him a more reliable commander in chief for our troops. Who's ready to lead!"
Protester! Young woman hoisted up onto shoulders right in front of press, flashing peace signs. Drowned out by chants: USA, we want John, etc. Escorted out by cops, the young man still carrying the young woman on his shoulders.
McCain: "That's a perfect example of people who just don't get it." "I've had hundreds of town hall meetings, I always give people a chance to talk, I don't always enjoy it, but if there's anyone else, I'll be glad to talk."
He bashed the bear DNA (which he voted for) again and the Bridge to Nowhere (oh, just Google it) My Friends is up to about 15.
Spending cuts: "My friends, right now we need a hatchet AND a scalpel."
"I'll balance the federal budget by the end of my term in office." My TERM? My FIRST term or my TERM?
Obama bash time. "He never answers the serious and legitimate questions he's asked. He's even questioned my truthfulness. I don't need lessons in telling the truth, and if I did need help I wouldn't seek advice from a Chicago politician."
"I called for tighter restrictions on Fannie May and Freddie Mac; my opponent was silent and his Democratic allies did nothing."
Health care: "He will fine employers. That kills jobs, my friends. He has not said how big his fine will be. You deserve an answer and you sure didn't get it it Tues Night's debate."
Lots of scattered shouts from the audience, hard to make out individual words. Boos on taxes. "Half the income of small business in America would be taxed."
A national reporter in front of me is bored and surfing icanhascheezburger.com. "I'll cut the size of gov't and I'll get this country moving again." OM NOM NOM NOM.
Bashing earmarks and the planetarium projector. "The chairman of the planetarium pledged to raise $200,ooo for Obama's campaign." Two my friends in one paragraph - easily up over two dozen.
"You don't have to 'hope' things will change when you vote for me -- you KNOW that things will change."
Praise for the vets who are, you guessed it, My Friends. "I will bring our troops home with victory and honor and not defeat." Reuses the "Make sure my son's death was not in vain" bracelet line.
"I want to be president because I know I can inspire Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves."
Speech wraps at 11:39. Same exit music, "Life Is A Highway."
11:47. The nationals are starting to pack up while the camera scrum follows JMcC down the rope line. Crowd's about half gone.
So what news do we get out of this?
Calling it a day at 11:57, John Deeth reporting.
Full name of clergy is Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church. Full quote:
"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god - whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah - that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.
"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day."
Response from Iowa McCain campaign: "While we understand the important role that faith plays in informing the votes of Iowans, questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions in this race about Barack Obama's judgment, policies and readiness to lead as commander in chief."
Met a couple from Jones County on the way out, carrying Hartsuch yard signs, and they commiserated that Hartsuch, and Senate candidate Chris Reed, didn't speak.
Other crowd estimates were 2,000 and 3,000. The press riser could have been pushed back a good 30 feet or so to hold more people.