A raucous Iowa caucus

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

Despite his flirtation with off-the-heeze battiness, we heart Huckabee for his sincerity. Sure, he might be a batshit troglodyte, but he's an honest batshit troglodyte.

 

DECEMBER 27. Exactly a week before the Big Day. In a cushy bar and grill in Cedar Rapids—located in bluer, more populous east Iowa—a packed house awaited Sen. John McCain. He was scheduled to appear at 3:00 p.m. The clock read 3:35. Had they thrown him back in the tiger cage?

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

Just then one of McCain's sharp-dressed staffers took the floor and told the 100-plus folks in attendance that the senator was on his way and offered a nugget to chew on while they waited: "An important thing to remember about Senator McCain when the caucuses roll around: He's the only Republican candidate polling successfully against Hillary Clinton. That's because he has a very wide appeal to diverse groups of people."

As I surveyed the restaurant, taking note of the supporters—some old, others young, some in business suits, others in football jerseys—I couldn't help but agree: This was an incredibly diverse group of white people.

When McCain—who was polling a distant third behind Huckabee and Romney at the time—walked in, he wasted no time in getting down to substantive business. Having last heard Huckabee speak, I was not prepared for McCain's pithy, no-bullshit stump style. It couldn't be more different from Huckabee's: no maudlin pandering, no sappy appeals to ghosts, no shameless fellating of the yokels.

"As some of you may have heard, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated earlier today," said McCain, who apparently doesn't believe in opening with a joke. "I think this development highlights the need for a president with foreign policy experience."

He elaborated on this point briefly, then got down to strategy. Or at least tried to.

"Why should we care about Pakistan?" he asked. "The first reason is their nuclear capabilities. We need to recognize that—" He stopped mid-sentence and noticed a cameraman standing five feet away. McCain put his hand up to shield his face from the bright light shining from the camera. "My friend, you're going to have to leave me," he ordered, trying not to strangle the bastard. He turned back to the crowd. "Another reason we must be concerned about Pakistan is because it borders Afghanistan. This is of strategic importance in the War on Terror. If we—"

McCain stopped again and glared at the videographer who had now inched back up to his original position. "My friend, you're going to have to leave me," he repeated, this time more forcefully. A McCain staffer sauntered up to the cameraman and directed him to back up. "My friend, you're going to have to listen to her," said McCain. His assailant relented.

Maybe it was because McCain was looking alarmingly pale and fragile that day. Maybe it was because press on the campaign trail tend to radiate an aura of predatory aggression. Whatever the case, in that brief, seemingly inconsequential exchange, McCain suddenly appeared to be a wounded antelope and I couldn't shake the feeling that all of us lurking off to the sides—reporters, cameramen, curious passersby—were African vultures awaiting his fall.

I pushed the thought aside and peered around at the others. Some looked shattered and a little off-kilter, sure, but nothing about them suggested they were capable of gobbling the flesh of a 71-year-old former POW in front of 120 total strangers in broad daylight unprovoked. And besides, there were children present. They would be inconsolable.

 

DOWNTOWN DES MOINES later that day: Hundreds of student campaign volunteers gathered in a Marriott ballroom to hear their fearless leader speak truth to power.

"All these wars—the war in Iraq, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs—do nothing but undermine our personal liberty. Our government was created to protect liberty, not willfully take it away. We have to reverse this trend!"

Meet Ron Paul: Texas congressman, presidential hopeful, and political mutant of the most fascinating order.

In an electoral landscape marred by play-it-safe hacks and transparent mountebanks, Paul and his minions have injected the process with something long considered inappropriate in presidential politics: fun. From the infamous giant blimp instructing witnesses to "Google Ron Paul," to the "Ron Paul Money Bombs" (days such as the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party in which donors dump ungodly sums of cash into his coffers), Paul & Company have tethered a dead-serious libertarian-leaning message to innovative, if slightly irreverent, fundraising methods.

Paul's internet-savvy campaign ranks third in money-in-hand among GOP candidates, behind golden boys Rudy Giuliani and Romney. He leads all presidential hopefuls—Democrat and Republican—in money received from military families, despite or because he spouts the bluntest anti-war rhetoric of anyone on the trail.

So why is he polling in single digits?

Part of it has to so with his whiny, shrill delivery. He comes across less as a viable candidate for Leader of the Free World and more like your tinfoil-hat wearing uncle who tries to coax you onto his lap after Thanksgiving dinner.

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