January 4, 2008

The Handshake

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DAVENPORT, Iowa — A Confessional Prequel to ‘Family, Romney-Style’: The Handshake.

The two things that most people know about shaking hands with politicians are: 1) the handshake may very well convince you, if the candidate has his or her desired celebrity effect, and 2) it’s very cool to tell your friends about.

As Governor Romney made his way through that crowded café on Sunday, my first thought was to move out of the way, and let Iowan supporters shake his hand. But he came straight for me. Yes, right smack in the middle of all that thinking about Romney was a moment of absolute un-thought: the handshake.

I wasn’t nervous or anything, only impressed at his almost too-perfect presidential look, highlighted by that perfect hair, which he hopes the Huckabee campaign will not get dirty in its mudslinging. Mitt and I turned to each other, seemingly about to meet eyes as he made his way down the line. I extended my hand.

And then things kind of went blank. Mitt and I have had a brief history, consisting mostly of my watching him in the national news media for a few weeks. And now that all came down to this moment. Here he was, and here I was.

It was a moment of collision, between someone who matters and someone who doesn’t, between someone who is on TV everyday and someone who has little desire for such a thing. He had shaken thousands of hands that week, probably millions since he has been in Iowa. I had not. It was almost too much opposition between us. We were like different species: Mitt was part human, part television, and Jeremy seemed, so far, to be all flesh.

I really cannot say whether I actually saw the man, as we briefly shook hands, or whether he actually saw me. It is a split-second whose existence I nearly cannot completely vouch for. And who knows if Mitt remembers?

If the journalist is supposed to spackle off the politician’s celebrity luster, to make him real again, the task itself is sometimes a bit surreal… which might call the resulting journalism into question.

Caucus Eve!

All is quiet on the Midwestern front, just a half hour before an event that will largely shape the course of the 2008 presidential election, and by consequence, the next four years of world history.

In an Iowa campaign that has seen unprecedented spending by the candidates, unprecedented turnout is also expected by some, and Senator Obama hopes that will include many students, as the Daily Iowan reported a few weeks ago.

Here is the moment of “we’ll see.” Campaign staffers who have spent weeks piling up data about Iowa voters—where they live and who they will vote for—concede that things remain unpredictable. One voter in Lagomarcino’s restaurant in East Davenport today said she was still undecided. Others were quite up-front: they weren’t going. Neither Marcy nor Corene, two café-goers, both of East Bettendorf, felt ready to make up their minds at this point. Both are torn between Obama and Clinton, but said they had other plans this evening. This was even as they spoke passionately about how great it was that the campaign was generating so much excitement this year.

This is Iowa’s moment of glory, its moment to exert massive (and disproportionate, perhaps unfair) influence on this election. It is also something of a last gasp, with the death of Iowa’s temporary stardom just around the corner. A happy death, perhaps, in its promise for a return to normalcy. “Yay,” was how Marcy summed it up.

And tonight may also prove to be a not so happy death for candidates that cannot muster enough supporters in this early test. In the Democratic caucuses, preference groups that do not reach the viability threshold (usually 15 percent) are disbanded, and just like that, some candidates’ modest support will be counted as… nothing. So here is a Night of the Death of the Political Minorities, which might sound just as horrifying to the candidates in question. The New York Times’ caucus blog reported that Bill Richardson, a Democrat with only 6 percent support according to the latest Des Moines Register poll, might throw his followers behind Barack Obama in precincts where Richardson does not anticipate achieving viability. Possibilities like this leave the field wide open between the most competitive Democrats—Edwards, Obama, and Clinton.

So, on this night of both happy and sad political death, where some Iowans are making others’ histories at caucus, and some Iowans are making their own histories at home on the couch… we’ll all have to wait and see.