Watching the fiasco unfolding in Iowa on Tuesday night brought back memories of covering the presidential campaign in 2000 – and not entirely unpleasant ones.
I never did the Iowa Caucuses, but I covered the New Hampshire primary and then followed John McCain through South Carolina and into the other early contests across the country.
By the time the presidential race really gets serious, say July or August, leading into the national conventions, covering the campaign is mostly a drag. You’re on planes and buses all day long, a virtual prisoner of the campaign you’re following. Access to the candidate is fairly limited and you’re reduced to listening to the same stump speech over and over and over all day long, straining to tell whether a slight change of wording marks a shift in strategy or policy.
But the early contests have a certain anarchic fun.
First, the candidates are throwing everything they have into just one state. Unlike the later parts of a campaign, where two candidates are jetting relentlessly across the country, in the early contests, there are a bunch of candidates driving around from town to town, meeting people in diners, in stores, in schools, and in town halls.
The candidates are much more accessible for voters and reporters alike, and some of the lesser-known candidates, who will be distant memories by the summer, actually seem to enjoy the media attention.
The events the candidates attend tend to be hokey, in a bygone-era sort of way. I remember vividly the “Bisquick Pancake-Flipping Contest” in New Hampshire. Only second-tier candidates showed up for the shamelessly commercial photo-op, but they gave it their all. Christian activist turned long-shot presidential candidate Gary Bauer was so intent on catching his flying pancake that he fell off the stage. No injuries were reported, except perhaps to his pride.
And then there are the protesters. That same accessibility that draws voters and reporters to the early contests draws activists to the early states.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was particularly active. In 2000, they rented red convertibles in New Hampshire and South Carolina and recruited workers to dress in bright pink pig suits to drive into rallies with music blaring.
Carrying signs calling for an end to meat consumption , they’d jump out of the vehicle and dance through the crowds along with the music that most campaigns pump out at rallies to entertain the people before the candidates show up.
Because they were comical and never disruptive, the PETA Pigs were something of a favorite with crowds and even candidates, who would sometimes even give them a little shout out during the speech.
John McCain seemed particularly entertained by a guy in a big blue shark suit, who would show up at his South Carolina rallies and dance vigorously to the pre-rally music. I don’t remember what the shark’s cause was, but I will never forget his pro moves during the Counting Crows song “Hanging Around,” an unlikely favorite of the McCain campaign staff who picked the music.
As the weather warms, however, and more of the long-shot candidates face reality and go home, that kind of fun begins to ebb. The remaining candidates are moving too fast to too many places for goofy stunts and colorful protests.
Only for a few brief weeks during the parties’ annual conventions does the anarchy return. With candidates, party bigwigs, and media from across the world concentrated in a single city, the Pigs and the Sharks and all the other quirky characters we met in New Hampshire and South Carolina come out for an encore.
Then after that, it’s a long, dreary sprint to Election Night and the White House. The Pigs had a hard time keeping up with that.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or email@example.com.
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