Raucous Caucus

horowitz santas Raucous CaucusIowa has eight deer hunting seasons: Shotgun, muzzleloader, early muzzleloader, bow, youth, disabled and special November and January antlerless seasons. I learned this from Mark, the taxi driver who picked me up from the Des Moines airport and drove me to see John Edwards, who was campaigning in Indianola on Thursday afternoon. Mark had just finished pointing out a few deer grazing on the icy fields along the road, when I learned something else about Iowa: Kamikaze wild turkeys will spring out of ditches, smash your windshield with the force of a cannonball and almost kill you.

On the side of the road after the accident, Mark and I dusted off the blue shards of glass that had sprayed onto our clothes and examined the few feathers and innards stuck in the cratered windshield. I asked if the last black wing-beats I saw before the impact didn’t belong to a pheasant. But Mark said it was a turkey, and Mark is from Iowa, so it was a turkey. With that settled, he called me another cab, and we stood outside the car, where everything around us—the farm’s wooden fence, the spindly tree branches and corn stalks shooting though the snow—wore a coating of glistening ice. Then we did what you do in Iowa in late December, three weeks before one of the most anticipated caucuses in decades. We talked politics.

Mark liked all the Democratic candidates and he knew without my prompting that Mr. Edwards had an event out in Indianola. He said that, personally, he leaned toward Hillary Clinton because he liked her experience. The cab driver who came to retrieve me, and drive me the rest of the way out to the Edwards event, said, “Mark is a moderate liberal; I’m so far to the right that you can’t see me. I’m almost a fascist.”

He was serious. He believed that Islamofascist terrorists, as he called them, would destroy America and bring about the end of days if not stopped by the full force of the American military. He wanted Iowa to secede from the union if the next president proved incapable of beating the terrorists back. I asked him which Republican candidate he liked. “None of them,” he said.

I said that he sounded like a Rudy Giuliani voter, but he said Mr. Giuliani was too soft on terrorism for his taste, which is something you rarely hear about Rudy Giuliani. Bob also had a problem with the default Republican position on immigration, but not the problem I expected. He called the idea of building a wall to stem illegal immigration between Mexico and the United States ridiculous. “It would divide two Christian countries that needed to unite to fight the Islamofascists,” he explained.

Bob dropped me off at the museum in Indianola, which had Edwards lawn signs stuck in the snow around the parking lot and icicles hanging from the rafters. “I better get out of here—enemy territory,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Edwards spoke at the Warren County Historical Museum, the central exhibit of which was an installation of opposing cubicles showcasing different collectibles—old medicine bottles, retro dresses and “maternal corsets,” or a barbershops chair—to evoke an old-fashioned main street.

Later that weekend, Mrs. Clinton appeared at the Antique Car Museum of Iowa in Coralville, where families piled into a red 1909 Reo, a green 1913 Rambler, a black 1924 Hupmobile and dozens of other old automobiles, and honked their horns when she was introduced.

During caucus time, such sleepy museums and cultural centers are overrun with presidential candidates and the Greek chorus of television crews and reporters who follow their every move. Unlike the locals, who wear bulky sweaters stitched with snowflakes, bring their crying babies to see the candidates and are unerringly polite and patient and smart about politics without being reflexively cynical, these reporters watch the same speeches again and again and again. Things can get stale.

The first time during this trip that I saw Elizabeth Edwards chomp at the bit while her husband spoke (“I didn’t even get through the first question,’’ Mr. Edwards said, to laughter), it seemed spontaneous and charming.

Then I watched the couple do variations on that routine in Manchester (“You just got here and you want to say something?”) and Elkader (“I usually do these by myself so, you know, it’s really hard to just sit there on the side”).

Somehow, the emotional impact weakened with repetition.

It’s also easy, upon watching stump routines in endless rerun, to develop minor obsessions with the candidates’ odd ticks.

Mr. Obama has a tendency to punctuate his responses in question-and-answer sessions by saying, “Alright? O.K.,” like some sort of seminar instructor.

Hillary Clinton’s has a habit of following awkward tangents: “Children, we know, are very inquisitive, they put everything in their mouths, they sleep with things, they lick things, you know all of that.”

Covering Mrs. Clinton in particular can feel like watching a candidate through thick aquarium glass—she sees you but can’t hear your questions no matter how hard you tap. As a result, the reporters who cover her sometimes seem positively starved for small kindnesses.

For the most part, the food provided to journalists on the Clinton campaign bus, while plentiful, is very, very bad. A vegetable wrap turns out to be a mayonnaise burrito, the pizza slices are tiny, like Trivial Pursuit wedges. The campaign aides dole out Tums like press releases.