Election 2004: They Swoop To Conquer

GQ, Nov 2004

As the Bush and Kerry bandwagons crisscross the American heartland in search of precious votes, GQ journeys to the Midwest to ask: how did the most important election in the world boil down to a popularity contest in a barn?

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GQ Photographs by Chris Floyd

John Hancock of the Missouri Republican Party strides into suite 643 of the Grand Hotel in St Louis, talking urgently into a 2 way radio. “Are you sure?” he says. “Because I’m right here in the middle of the room and I can’t find the President anywhere.”

For a second, everything stops. Conversations hang mid sentence, people look up from their laptops, incredulous. Suite 643 is the control centre for the Missouri Republican Party’s annual bash – a weekend long rally of 500-some faithful known as Lincoln Days. Hundreds of noted Republicans are pouring in from all over the state – you can hear them in the lobbies, stamping the snow from their feet as though readying for a charge – and here, in this buzzing hotel room is where their rooms are reserved, seating plans altered, caterers chivvied and laminates issued. Dick Cheney is the keynote speaker tonight, so preparations are particularly feverish. Boxes of programmes and wads of Bush-Cheney stickers spill onto the floor. A clutter of radios lies heaped on the table. But no President.

“Hold on,” says Hancock, peering underneath the table. “Nope, he’s definitely not here. Where did you leave them?”

“Right there in the corner,” replies the voice on his radio, shakily. “There were three of them.”

“What – three Bushes?” asks Hancock. “Have you asked Ashley or Kate?”

“Er, sorry,” says a girl’s voice over the radio. “We thought you had them.”

Hancock clicks off the 2 way radio and shakes his head. “It seems all of our Presidents are missing.”

In an election year, at a key campaign event, this is not the kind of detail you can overlook. In fact, details like these make all the difference – little things like whether the microphones work, who’s a vegetarian and does anyone know where the President went. After all, there’s a lot at stake here – even though it’s only February, a good nine months before the election. Missouri is a crucial piece of any winner’s jigsaw. As one of only two bellwether states in the country – the other is Dela-where? – Missouri not only swings, but it swings the right way. In the last century, it consistently picked the President in every election but one (in 1956). In other words, if the Republicans don’t carry the state this year, Bush will probably get the push. Presuming of course that Hancock can find him first.

He goes suddenly silent. His face has the focused look of a man engrossed in his earpiece. Then as though jolted by electricity, he grabs an armful of radios and makes a dash for the door. “Quick! Follow me!” he cries. “I need to get these radios to the secret service! We’ll have a look for the President downstairs.”

A tall, booming sixth generation Missouri Republican, John Hancock twice tried for secretary of State but twice failed. So he became executive director of the party and now he’s a consultant, the unofficial master of ceremonies. It’s his job to throw the party’s parties, to host the quiz night and spin the press. And whenever Bush or Cheney drop in to try and swing the swingers, it’s Hancock they call to make sure the show runs according to plan. He’s a crucial component in any Republican success in Missouri.

“This whole thing is really just to get the whole party energised for this election,” he says, charging through hotel corridors. “Fundraising’s only a small part of it – we just had a huge fundraiser last month. Raised $2.8m which is a record. Yeah, we beat the Democrats record of $2m in 1996. Pretty neat.”

When we reach the main hall, Hancock disappears into the throng. It’s like a tribal gathering in here, a cacophony of primary colours. Every wall is draped with shouty banners. Hawkers accost me to buy Bush hats and Bush ties, a key-ring or a bobble-head doll. In one ballroom, legions of old women sit praying quietly for a Republican victory. They are all wearing bright red jackets, each one of them blitzed in badges like the Pearly Queen. Meanwhile, in the hall, candidates for various local offices prowl the corridors, ambushing strangers with a handshake, always quick on the draw with a business card and a spiel. They wear jokey badges like “GOP – God’s Only Party” and “The road to hell is paved with liberals”. Children run among them collecting petitions.

Then I spot him – the man we came here looking for – standing in the corner, sporting a simian grin and giving a little wave. A life size cut out of George W Bush is propped up beside a nerdy looking guy who has scrawled in biro on the President’s chin, “For Sale” – which is something the executives of Enron and Halliburton have known for years. When I point out that the “For Sale” message doesn’t exactly look good, initially the nerd looks puzzled. Then it dawns. “Oh, yes, I see what you mean,” he says, embarrassed. And he writes over the messy biro, a bolder, neater version in permanent marker: “For Sale – $35″.

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The President of the United States is by any token an important man, arguably the most important in the world. So it’s a little troubling to discover that he will be ultimately selected, if not by a Florida judge, then by a bunch of farmers in the Midwest – hog farmers, dairy farmers, poultry, arable, all kinds of farmers. These are men who, like their wives, wear faded denim shorts, drive muddy pickups and enjoy their guns. They don’t trust uppity city folk with their mocha lattes and sushi rolls. And they all seem to own at least one big red barn, as iconic to the Midwest as a ten gallon is to Texas. So in these turbulent times of war, Osama, AIDS, terror and the rising price of oil, this is what the most important election in the world has come to – a popularity contest in a barn.

How could this happen to such a young and promising democracy?

Well, the blame first falls at the door of the parents – the Founding Fathers, who in the 19th Century, created the “Electoral College” system which has long overvalued the barn vote. This is the same scheme which enabled Bush to win in 2000 without a popular majority. Each state is allocated a certain number of Electoral College votes – little Southern Dakota gets 3, big California gets 55, and so on – and whichever candidate wins a majority in that state takes them all to Washington for a final tally. The trouble is – the Electoral College allocation isn’t quite proportional to the voting population. So some sheep are more equal than others. According to the bald maths, the Midwestern voter is roughly 1.5 times as important as a Californian and about 1.4 times a New Yorker.

But this is pernickety stuff. The greatest single factor in overamplifying the say of pig farmers in the future of the free world is the way that America cleaves politically. By an accident of democracy, the farmers hold the balance power. Since most of the 50 states vote predictably enough – Utah and Kansas, for example, are reliably red (Republican) and California and New York are dependably blue (Democrat) – the decisive states are the handful of swingers, or ‘battleground’ territories. And many of the swingiest are in America’s already overhyped Midwest, in states like Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Iowa.

The hoary old strategy for winning elections in America is to rally your base, either left or right, and then drag the party to the centre as the big day nears. Given the Midwest’s quirky significance, this convergence to the centre is now a matter of geography as it is of politics. Both Bush and Kerry pay inordinate attention to states that may have more hogs than people, they visit them time and again, sprinkling the good earth with campaign funds they raised on the coasts. So I decided to follow them, to head into this land of hogs, hay bales and beauty pageants, to watch the campaigns, both Bush and Kerry, woo the crucial barn vote in Missouri and Iowa respectively. Forget the champagne rallies in DC and LA, the lavish fundraisers in Dallas and Boston. The highest political office in the world will be settled here, in a field, where the words “venti ice-blended” mean nothing.

Missouri makes a bleak first impression, especially in the winter. The monotony of the snowy plains is broken only by signs for cheap motels and junk food. Still, the ultimate ‘flyover state’ has at least one distinction – its uncanny ability to pick the President, a bellwether gift, which as any native will tell you, has to do with Missouri being a microcosm of the nation. It’s like a Russian doll tucked into the heart of the country. The population of 5 million has the same percentage of African Americans (11%), the same percentage of union workers, the same rural/urban mix, and so on. It even perfectly mirrors the red and blue map of the 2000 election – the enduring image of the country’s 50/50 split – with the Democrats gathered on each coast and the Republicans rampant everywhere else. In Missouri, the blues are similarly huddled around the cities of St Louis and Kansas City on either flank, and in between, it’s all red, rural and strictly Christian. Missouri is one of few states in the union where, within 10 miles or so, you can drive past 2 billboards warning of the perils of pornography.

In truth, the microcosm theory flatters the state. This doll is a little fatter and drabber than mom. While America’s history books teem with war, toil and enterprise, Missouri’s only entry in the annals is the tepid-sounding Missouri Compromise in 1820, when the state met half way on the slavery issue. The state has been compromising ever since. And what better word for a political weathervane than “compromise”? Even the borders seem to strike a balance – half squiggly and half straight.

Missouri is where America stopped questing; it’s the state the pioneers literally left behind. There’s an arch in St Louis called the Gateway to the West, through which Thomas Jefferson despatched the famous explorers Lewis and Clark – their westward march to the Oregon trail yielded the gold rush and the Wild West. Missouri, however, is made up of those who stayed, who were too afraid to risk what they had – settlers in every sense of the word.

“Trends don’t start here,” chuckles Dr Rick Althaus, a professor of political science at the South East University of Missouri. “We’re not a people of bold ambitions, not really risk-takers. Most new ideas take a while to come in from the coasts so by the time they reach us, we can see whether they have worked or not. And we take our time – we survey the options and choose. Missourians aren’t impulsive, we’re by nature very sceptical of anything new. That’s where the whole ‘show-me’ thing comes from.”

Missouri is the “Show-me” state, just as California is “Golden” state and Florida is “Sunshine”. The nickname hails from Senator Vandiver in 1899, who struck a chord when he said: “Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” This might explain why Bush clinched the state in 2000 – he’s not much one for frothy eloquence either. In Missouri, as in the rest of the Midwest, the tendency to fumble your sentences can be a potential asset. Somehow eloquence and action are perceived as mutually exclusive. One farmer explained his loyalty to Bush thus: “Because if there was a girl getting raped out the front of this hotel,” he said, “then Al Gore would hold an immediate meeting and Bill Clinton would go out and get her number. But George Bush would go right out there and kick the guy’s ass. And that’s the guy I want in charge.”

That Bush has avoided kicking any ass throughout his life – particularly Vietnamese ass – is immaterial. As Reagan said, “facts are useless things”. It is the impression that counts, and President Bush leaves an impression that chimes with the state of Missouri – simple, plain, incurious, born-again. Althaus sees in Bush aspects of Missouri’s favourite son Harry Truman, the guy who said ‘the buck stops here’. “Truman was from Lamar, Missouri,” he says. “He’s a good example of the kind of personality that Missourians like – practical, straight-shooting, a man of no great accomplishment.”

In addition to mild-dyslexia, then, underachievement is likely to impress the Midwestern voter. The unexceptional is so venerated here that averageness is a kind of aristocracy – in the middle of Middle America, mediocrity is worn like a medal, flush with stubborn pride. Flaws are spun into virtues – that’s not ‘dour mistrust of new ideas’, it’s ‘healthy doubt of new fangled nonsense’. And at every turn, the inward looking inlanders can lean on the support of a myth, the most pervasive myth in American politics – the myth of the “heartland”, a soft-focus romance of rural America. The heartland myth envisions barn country as a pastoral idyll in which modest, Christian, self-reliant folk till the soil until their souls glow with moral rectitude. Admittedly, the heartland’s fabled lack of ambition makes for pleasant, friendly natives – Midwesterners tend to be patient and warm, cars don’t honk and they’ll stop if you need a push. But there are other myths of the heartland to counter the cloying wholesomeness – as an NRA hick park, for example, that spawned Timothy McVeigh and the murderers of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”. Men with mullets holding squalling babies. Not all myths lead to Washington.

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Historically Republicans have been more successful at exploiting the heartland myth. I saw Bush address a Republican audience in a factory in Springfield, home town of John Ashcroft, the fundamentalist attorney general. He introduced himself as ‘Ole George Dubya from Washington’, to a roar of applause, and delivered a Sesame Street lesson about how his tax cuts help “mom take better care of her family”. Simple lessons, gut convictions, family values – this is what the Midwest wants to hear. No matter that the economy is a vast and complex animal, and that 3 million of jobs have been lost under Bush – in times of adversity, it is not reason or figures that matter but faith. And a spot of pandering never hurts. After a characteristic pause for thought, Bush referred to the state as ‘Missoura’ – the old country, old fashioned pronunciation. Imagine if Tony Blair, campaigning in London’s East End, were to suddenly refer in all seriousness, to “me old china”. Back at the Grand, it’s almost time for Cheney to emerge from behind the back curtain and mumble gravely through the side of his mouth about terror. He too will say “Missoura”, just to show the farmers he’s ‘down’. After 4 cardiac arrests, Cheney can hardly escape the heartland.

Before this all begins, though, the crowd gathers in the hall for a pre-prandial glass of Merlot and as the air fills with chatter and clinking, there’s a general drift toward the window to look down at a protest that has assembled on the street. About 200 people are standing on a snowy verge opposite the hotel, holding up their banners: “Hey Cheney stop robbing Vets”, “Hands off my overtime pay”, “America’s Not for Sale”. Around them stand a battalion of riot police, with dogs and shields.

A couple of old dears peer over at them and sigh. “Those poor things, it’s so cold out there,” says one. “Yes I know,” says her friend. “If that was my dog, I’d put a little warmer on him.”

A little further down, a rabble of young Republicans are waving smugly from the window. “Fucking losers,” says Greg Keller, from Bush-Cheney’s campaign staff. He has tasselly brogues, a hair flick and the dead eyes of a Berlin Wall guard. “They think it’s my fault they’ve got a crappy job,” he continues to nobody in particular. “Go to college, get a better one! There are plenty of jobs out there. Look at Nick, he just got a job working on the governor’s campaign.”

Nick is knee-high and bald as a foetus. He’s been walking around the hall approaching girls with the line, “hi I’m Skip – Skip Foreplay” and giggling hysterically. “These people out there,” he says, eager to hold forth. “They’re stupid. They don’t even want to work, most of them. They want a handout. But why should I pay my money that I earned for some deadbeat who doesn’t want to work?”

The logic would be unassailable but for the facts – the protestors have jobs, they just want to protect their overtime pay. Besides, Bush’s tenure has coincided with a drop in the minimum wage and so in the value of work. But it seems pointless to get into it here. So I just ask him how he became a conservative so young. “Yeah, I hear that a lot, you can be a Republican when you’re old, right? Well, I guess some of us are just quicker developers,” he sneers. “Hey, watch this.” He holds out his hand to passing girl volunteer. “I’m Phil, Phil McCrutch.”

There was a time, in the 1980s, when conservatives were onto something. They had attitude, they were the ones shaking things up. Libertarian Republicans were leading a backlash against the humourless bleeding hearts and at their helm were the likes of PJ O Rourke, a conservative humorist, a rare creature at the best of times. Along with free markets came the freedom to do and say what you liked without fear of a scolding from some leftie killjoy. Big government was bad, rugged individualism was good and it was compulsory to pour scorn on any looney schemes to empower black inner city lesbians and such like. Laissez-faire went for the bedroom as for the economy; the trickle down effect applied also to the finest wines. Only by embracing our common greed, might we rid the world of ‘isms. Only our overpowering lust for green could eclipse our racial or gender prejudice. And for the incurably prudent, the whole philosophy was buttressed by a near congenital aversion to deficits.

But that was fifteen years ago. The pillars of conservatism have since been upended – the libertarians are silent, deficits soar and Republicans are synonymous with big, scary government. The cultural backlash against liberals has soured into an angry rant by mean-spirited, neo-conservatives, who espouse a kind of born-again conservatism without any of the fun. This new gang are a joyless bunch, obsessed with sobriety, prayer in schools and “Family Values”. They fear and mistrust homosexuals, immigrants, communists, the French, the civil liberties union, heathens, drugs, Amnesty International, the UN, anyone who disagrees with them and even women’s breasts. John Ashcroft was so upset by the sight of an exposed tit on the statue of the Spirit of Justice outside his office that he spent $8000 to have it elaborately concealed.

The most intriguing outcome of the anti-liberal backlash, however, is the way that America’s working class has been persuaded to vote against its economic interest. Farmers like George Engelbach who came to Lincoln Days, dressed up as Abe himself, and said: “I’m pro-life, pro-family and against gun control, so I guess that kind of makes me a Republican.” While the ‘wedge’ issues have long translated into votes in rural America, no matter what economic policies come attached, the backlash has also engendered a kind of underdog defiance in the red state Republican, the kind of class resentment that is more the dominion of the left. It’s daft on the face of it – since when did the underdogs control all three branches of government and represent the richest percentile in the country? How can a friend of corporate multinationals also ally itself with the working man? Nevertheless, the Bush administration has successfully cast its lot with the common man against a Left it paints as an arrogant godless ‘media elite’ brimming with sushi-fed liberals, latte-sipping snobs and war-shy sissies who hate America. Hollywood liberals are a favourite target. Any hint of European tastes in clothes, food, and music is shot down with gusto. (Naturally, the billionaire corporate donors to the Bush campaign would never dream of enjoying anything so treacherous as a vintage bottle of Bordeaux). Yet in so doing, the modern Republican party has pulled off a remarkable double whammy – it has won over the small town likes of Engelbach, who cannot abide “some elite telling me what to do”, while high-fiving the corporate behemoths who, with the benefits of massive deregulation, are trampling the small town and the family farm with impunity. This has been the tragic one-two punch for the people of the heartland. They’re shaking the hand that beats them.

It’s ridiculous of course, that the pinnacle of the nation’s aristocracy – the son of a president, grandson of a senator and former oil boss – can still play the underdog card and win. But such is the power of myth over fact in American politics. Just as the liberal elite in America is a fiction, the “heartland”, to which all roads seem to lead in this election, is itself an apparition.

In a much quoted article, articulating the foundations of Red state pride, Missouri farmer, Blake Hurst, wrote that “red America serves as a reservoir for the rest of the country, supplying moral perception and the life giving moisture of good citizenship”. But the facts fail him – the murder rate is higher in the red states than the blue. Children are more likely to be born to teenagers or single mothers. Hurst goes on to rhapsodise about the stout self-reliance of his kind: “most red Americans can’t deconstruct post-modern literature, give proper orders to a nanny, pick out a cabernet with aftertones of liquorice…but we can wire our own houses, repair a small engine, shoot a gun and run a chainsaw without fear…” And so on. But this self-sufficiency is hollow – blue America subsidizes red America to the tune of $90bn per year. Just as the US armed forces would be depleted without the sons of heartland farmers, those very farmers would be destitute without handouts from those latte-glugging ponces they so love to loathe.

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Sitting on a boat, on the Mississippi river in Dubuque, Iowa, looking up at some faraway fireworks crackle and pop in the night sky, Senator Kerry appears to be turning slowly to stone. An epic stillness has come over him. Not a blink, not a word. He seems to emanate silence. Around him sits the family who owns the boat, cowed by the hovering boom mikes and the glaring scrutiny of the television cameras, not 6 ft away. Even the huddled media, whose tug is cuffed to Kerry’s, are hushed, content to gaze indifferently upon yet another piece of campaign theatre. Minutes pass.

Eventually the last firework fizzles out and the scene dissolves as suddenly as if someone yelled “cut!” The statue moves! Now, he’s shaking hands and slapping backs while the secret service men radio each other and the boats are hurriedly untied. As they drift apart, one of the reporters tosses a softball: “so Senator, how does it feel to be celebrating the Independence weekend on the Mississippi in Dubuque?” And Kerry sighs and turns to face us. He has the tiny, sad eyes of a mother elephant. “Oh just spectacular,” he says, visibly tired. “Really spectacular. What a great night.”

He has every reason to be exhausted. Campaigning is a draining business, particularly in the heartland, where the population is so thinly spread. In the past two days, his Spirit of America bus tour – the poster features a big red barn – has covered the length of Minnesota and Wisconsin, travelling everywhere with a motorcade of three coaches, a satellite van, several police cars and motorcycle outriders. And at each stop, no sooner has he disembarked to shake a few hands, sign a few autographs and say a few words, than the Kerry Roadshow starts again to rev its engines – there’s too much ground to cover and the competition is intense. For even as Kerry covers Iowa, the Dick Cheney bus tour rumbles through Pennsylvania. CNN has dubbed it “the battle for America’s heart and soul.”

“Iowans feel like they own John Kerry,” says Leah Cullis, a pretty 24 year old campaign staffer and native Iowan. “A lot of them feel like they got him where he is. Because if he didn’t win Iowa in November, then maybe he wouldn’t be running for President.” As the first state to hold caucuses on who will challenge the incumbent President – Democrat or Republican – Iowans were the first to endorse Kerry’s bid for the White House. It was here that Cullis first volunteered and helped Kerry trounce the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, the Garp figure from Vermont, Howard Dean. It was a decisive victory – Kerry 38% to Dean’s 18% – and a bolt from the blue as far as the pollsters were concerned. Like Hollywood, politics hinges heavily on the opening weekend numbers. After such a strong start in Iowa, Kerry had the nomination in the bag. Why Iowa gets first pick of every American President since 1972 remains one of the mysteries of America. It’s not a microcosm like Missouri – Iowa is 97% white, farming stock, raised on cornfields. A friend of mine thinks it’s because Iowans are from outer space and that eventually the mother ship will land in Des Moines to take them all away. “‘Iowa’ even sounds outerspacey,” says Joe. “Isn’t there a moon of Jupiter or something? That explains why they all look like Radar O’Reilly out of Mash”. But Joe’s from Kansas. And people from Kansas are weird.

Ultimately it seems that Iowa made a typically pragmatic, Midwestern choice – it picked Kerry for his electability rather than charisma. Certainly Kerry looks presidential, and looks are important in show business but there’s that whiff of compromise again. The badge going around at the time said it all – “Dated Dean, Married Kerry”.

“It wasn’t just electability, though,” says Mike, the state campaign director. “Iowans really liked John Kerry’s work rate. That was a big thing. In a larger state everything happens through media, commercials and TV, but in Iowa, you have to go to every person’s living room. You have to listen to every issue of every senior citizen like a candidate would have done 100 years ago. In campaigning terms, Iowa’s like going back in time.”

Presidential campaigns have always been about going back in time – American politics thrives on nostalgia. The heartland myth dates back to the 1930s, to the Andy Hardy movies of Mickey Rooney and the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Such is the electorate’s capacity to pine, that for seventy years since, politicians of both hues have never ceased to harken back to this fantastical land of plows and yeomen. Now nostalgia is mandatory – the past may never be past again in politics. But as the Spirit of America tour shows, it is being evoked with ever greater efficiency.

On 4th July, the morning after the boat trip, Kerry’s itinerary is so crammed with nostalgia that Cullis is up at 5am to get the flags in place. In the morning the Senator will attend a small town parade down a dinky flag-lined high street, then he’s off to play baseball with kids where the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, was shot. There’s a backyard barbecue to attend in a town called Independence – Team Kerry found an Independence in Wisconsin, too – and at the end of the day, a closing rally in Cedar Rapids, 40 miles away. This whistlestop tour of America’s boonies is an odd circus. These images of Kerry enjoying the slow, simple pleasures of barbecues and baseball are achieved at a galloping pace, at vast expense and with all the zip of modern technology. As the motorcade hurtles between barns, the journalists for the national papers tap furiously at their laptops, filing their copy through a satellite signal provided by a van in front. By the time we reach the barbecue most newspapers have already filed text and pictures from the baseball event. So much for going back in time. We travel in a digital hum.

For all the importance attached to the media coverage, however, the media are nevertheless strangely unwelcome. It’s a love-hate thing. Where once journalists were granted privileged access to candidates, now the press has been demoted in the campaign caste system as much out of fear as loathing. We’re penned off at every stop, separated from both native Iowans and The Candidate. Often the media enclosure is cordoned off like a crime scene with yellow police tape. Serious security men with wires trickling out of their ears tell you to wait there, don’t move, while precious face time with the future leader of the Free World is reserved, instead, for the locals, the hallowed “real Americans” and their children, who are so dazzled by his celebrity that most exchanges flounder in inanity – how are you, great day for it, thanks for coming, bye. And the press are left with the pictures, just an impression. The bold sometimes call out questions from behind their enclosure, but they are mostly ignored, treated like paparazzi yelling “give us a smile” to Paris Hilton.

One day with the Kerry team brought home the tremendous wastefulness of campaigning – it’s no wonder they’re constantly scouring for funds. For the immense operation that Kerry’s presence entails, the gains seem so few. Most of the Iowans who show up are Kerry fans anyway – only a tiny minority will be swung by his presence – so the trip’s only tangible product appears to be these corny images and news stories, the product of so much sleeplessness and toil. For their sake whole platoons of secret service men are despatched to small towns across America to sweep the shops and people for bombs with metal detectors and German Shepherds; flags are raised, site teams dispersed, sunsets timed, T shirts distributed, burgers ordered by the crate, bins filled with beer and ice, and banners painted, effortfully, carefully, by senior citizens on rainy days. Amid this mighty whirl of activity, the Candidate can appear only diminished. He walks from here to there, followed by a rabble of Mediataurs, hybrid creatures with bodies of paunchy men and the heads of TV cameras, who scramble backwards watching him intently as he goes through the motions of campaign orthodoxy, the brisk handshaking and endless smiling, what VS Naipaul called “the politician’s simple self-satire”.

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It’s a baking afternoon at the National Czech Museum in Cedar Rapids and the crowd is pink with sun – six thousand of them, including a small band of Bush supporters in the corner. When the Senator arrives wading through the crowd, a huge cheer goes up and stays up like a roar. He is accompanied by his daughters, Alex and Vanessa, the Governor of Iowa and his family. His smile presents a wall of teeth, his eyes shrink into wrinkles. He climbs up on stage, flanked by what appears to be the only black family in Iowa, and behind him, a symphonic sunset has begun its first overtures.

Perfect. The cameras flutter furiously from the press riser.

Then the first drops fall. Overhead a cancerous cloud looms like a retractable roof. I find Leah Cullis standing under a tree at the back looking perturbed as her picture perfect political scene is assaulted by the weather. “This has never happened before, I don’t understand, it’s usually the other way round,” she says. “The rain usually stops when he arrives – it happened in Denver, it was pouring for hours and then when the motorcade turned up, the sun came out. In Portland, same thing. And Seattle.”

But not Cedar Rapids. As Kerry prepares to speak, the rains fall harder and faster. Big, angry drops. His daughters give each other alarmed looks; everyone is soaked to the skin. Yet still his smile is intact and the cheers grow louder and louder: “Ker-ry! Ker-ry!” No one seems to be scuttling for shelter.

“Do you want me to be brief?” he calls out. And the crowd yells “NO!” So he begins his 4th of July speech, one he has been rehearsing throughout his heartland tour. It’s a drenched and rousing performance. The American media has already fashioned its stereotype of Kerry as a boring waffler – just as Bush is the bungling malaprop with the common touch and Cheney is Dr Evil. But he shows no signs of waffling today, with his fist in the air, in the downpour. Gone is the stiff photo-op Candidate pitching softballs at the Field of Dreams or the autograph-signing celebrity in Small Town USA. The rains have washed away these political veneers and suddenly John Kerry looks less like a statuesque campaign actor or a life size cut-out, and more like a union organiser, mobilising a mob into action. It strikes me that I may never again see Kerry like this – Presidents don’t tend to get wet.

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And yet, today the cosiness of campaigning has been punctured. Behind Kerry the lights suddenly blow, casting him into a near silhouette against the still fiery sunset behind him. His bedraggled daughters let out a small shriek. But he stands firm. “Under Bill Clinton,” he declares, “the wages of Americans over 8 years went up $7,100. Under George Bush, the wages of Americans have gone down $1600…” And now the crowd are still. They’re listening, through the drum and pelt of a rainstorm.

For the heartland this is unusual stuff. So often campaigning here is so easy, so formulaic. Since the myth remains the same from one election cycle to the next, both parties have so refined their pandering arts that every four years, the only mystery left is which route their barn tour will take, and with what vigour and gimmickry will it be conducted. Over the years, the heartland has become a byword for political laziness, as much a crutch as a battleground – a place to proffer “Missoura” and “the heart and soul of America” as begging bowls for votes; a place to worship at the altar of the “ordinary working American”; a place to trot out that brand of downhome hokum that so clearly brands a politician a phoney. The heartland more than any other psychic region of America has a way of teasing out a Candidate’s inner charlatan. Perhaps then, it’s only fitting that it holds such massive electoral sway.

“Langston Hughes wrote in the 1930s a powerful poem about being black and poor in America,” Kerry says to the dripping white throng. “And he said: ‘Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. For those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plough in the rain, must bring back our mighty dream again.’ Those words are real.”

Cullis looks happy now. This is the President she wants to see. A man who can recite a new poem for the nation, unfaltering in the driving rain. “That’s why Iowans love John Kerry, because the harder it gets, the harder he fights. He never gave up in the caucuses and he won. He’s going to win again, you watch.” Perhaps she’s right – certainly here, in the dark heart of a rainstorm, his hair and clothes soaked, John Kerry has never looked so fit for office.

“Listen,” he cries. “We’re not fair weather Democrats here. And I promise you this – these rains will pass. Just like the present administration.” There’s a roar of approval and at once the cheer starts again. “Ker-ry! Ker-ry! Ker-ry! Ker-ry!”