A raucous Iowa caucus

The Wizard of Odds: Iowa begins the road to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul

Every four years, Iowa transforms from an inconspicuous little rural state into a veritable clusterfuck of egomaniacal presidential candidates and predatory media types. Generally a shy, unassuming people, Iowans regard the hubbub with a mix of bemusement and awkward hesitancy. They're more familiar with the fertilizing qualities of hog crap than with the squalid contents of political bullshit. Also, their pale skin tends to burn in the spotlight.

Notoriously centrist­—Iowa tipped in favor of Bush in 2004 by the slimmest margin in the nation and was Gore territory in 2000—the Hawkeye state derives its disproportionate political pull from being the first step in the presidential nominating process. Its caucuses didn't enter the political lexicon as "all-important" or "crucial" until after 1972, when an obscure South Dakota senator named George McGovern used an Iowa win to circumvent the Democratic Party establishment and secure the nomination—a strategy Jimmy Carter winningly replicated four years later.

Since then, candidates invest preposterous amounts of time and resources in Iowa. John Edwards has been campaigning here for so long, his children likely qualify for in-state tuition at Iowa's three regent universities.

In his latest role, Fred Thompson plays a former senator lethargically shuffling toward the White House
Matt Snyders
In his latest role, Fred Thompson plays a former senator lethargically shuffling toward the White House
Iowa conservatives, just minutes before saddling up Fred Thompson and riding him around the room like a show pony
Friends of Fred Thompson
Iowa conservatives, just minutes before saddling up Fred Thompson and riding him around the room like a show pony

With this year's pissing match so close and so wide open—it's the first presidential election since 1928 devoid of a presidential or VP incumbent—there was no shortage of political stagings and rhetorical circle jerks for Iowans to attend. The anxious weeks leading up to the 2008 caucuses saw droves of candidates crisscross the most obscure corners of the state with a barrage of outlandish advertisements at their disposal. The mad dash was not without reason: Exit polls conducted by CNN in 2004 revealed that nearly half of caucus-goers (42 percent) made up their minds in the week leading up to the caucus.

Since the Republican National Convention is coming to St. Paul later this year, I decided to get a preview of the GOP field.

With a few exceptions, the general ambience on the Republican campaign trail is dire and hopeless. You can sense this in the hackneyed, uninspired applause lines the candidates regurgitate repeatedly and the half-assed cheers they elicit in turn. You get the feeling these candidates aren't so much mounting virile campaigns as they are going through the motions in the name of electoral posterity.

And who can blame them? Recent Gallup polls have every Democratic front-runner besting their GOP counterparts in head-to-head match-ups (although a hypothetical Hillary Clinton-John McCain bout yields a razor slim one percent edge for the Dems). Barring the imposition of martial law or the revelation that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards share the same Amazonian DMT dealer, it is unlikely anything resembling a Republican will inhabit the White House come January 20, 2009.

This feeling was palpable on a foggy, bitterly cold day two weeks before the caucus. About 75 people packed the tiny Webster County GOP headquarters in Fort Dodge. The air buzzed with... something. Not anticipation, but the possibility that something worth anticipating might present itself sometime in the future. It was like standing in a nursing home recreation room and not remembering why you came.

The attendees were present to catch a glimpse of Fred Thompson, the heavily sedated former actor who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate between 1994 and 2003.

With some time to kill before Thompson's appearance, I met an old gentleman by the name of Ken Rasch, a.k.a "Mighty Mel," a self-described "cowboy shooter." Wearing a beige Stetson, yellow-tinted glasses and leather boots, he certainly looked the part. He was also wearing an empty holster. He told me it had contained a 1911 model, ivory-handled Colt .45 not 15 minutes earlier, but he was told by organizers that he had to disarm himself. He had begrudgingly done so and placed the weapon in his canvas bag.

"This is the first time I surrendered my damn gun!" he said ruefully.

"It was quite a battle," his wife chimed in, beaming back at her husband, who glared at the man who'd disarmed him.

I asked the couple why they support Thompson over other Republican contenders.

"Our youth are being bombarded with terrible things these days," said Rasch, whose definition of terrible things evidently doesn't include Baby's Day Out, the 1994 John Hughes flick featuring Fred Thompson. "But this man has strong values. He reminds me of the kind of values Ronald Reagan had. He stands up for the right to life and he's for the Second Amendment so people can defend themselves. I think he's a real good conservative."

The conversation was cut off by hushed murmurings indicating the event was about to kick off. Far-right Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), a xenophobic Golem look-alike who once unironically called Joseph McCarthy "a hero for America," slithered up to the podium and introduced the man of the half-hour. When Thompson finally took the stage, a blue tarp draped behind him proclaiming him to be "The Clear Conservative Choice," he wasted no time in reiterating that he is indeed the Clear Conservative Choice.

"I read that the Des Moines Register wrote about me, 'Conservatives now have a horse to ride,'" he said. "Well, my response to that is, 'Saddle me up!'"

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