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Why Rick Santorum dined alone at Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn

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Rick Santorum at the Hamburg Inn. Photo: Mitchell Schmidt / Iowa City Press-Citizen

IOWA CITY, Iowa--"Someone said to me, 'Why the Hamburg Inn?'" Karen Fesler, a member of Rick Santorum's Iowa steering committee, was telling a local journalist at 7:15 on a cold November morning here. "And I said, because it's just what you have to do."

What you apparently have to do, if you're Rick Santorum, is spend 15 minutes walking through a burger joint associated, on any other day, with university students and hangover food. The success of one diner in selling itself as the single most Iowan place to meet Iowan voters has long since stopped interesting Iowa City, a college town in which I have studied and taught for three years. We simply accept its dominance. When Michele Bachmann's incongruously large bus pulled up beside a rival diner, The Bluebird, last June, the story we told was not that she had come, but that she had spurned the Hamburg Inn to no conceivable purpose.

By 7:30, the time for which the morning's first campaign stop was scheduled, Santorum had yet to arrive. Three very unlikely Santorum voters—Ron Paul and Gary Johnson fans, it would turn out—had positioned themselves in prime heckling position near the front of the restaurant, a vantage point from which you can look onto a moderately busy street and watch your victim approach. At least seven journalists, including a heavily made-up reporter from the local TV news, milled about with notebooks and cameras of various sizes. The number of people who were either eating breakfast or waiting to meet the former senator from Pennsylvania stood at six. Then two of them left, and another reporter walked in.

That any candidate makes time for The Hamburg Inn No. 2, an unremarkable diner in a liberal college town, is a testament to the place's success in selling a highly directed vision of Iowan authenticity. Wood paneled wainscoting, gingham-patterned wallpaper, and a touch of diner neon suggest a self-conscious resistance to remodeling. Meanwhile, visits by political candidates are meticulously documented. On a wall blanketed with frames, an image showing Barack Obama in the restaurant torn out of a 2007 New Yorker curls under glass; an image of John Edwards greeting Hamburg guests, torn out of a Time, hangs below. There is a plastic plaque commemorating the booth where Ronald Reagan sat in 1992. There is a framed "Certificate of Recognition" from the state Senate, thanking the diner "for it's [sic] efforts to keep the Iowa Caucus first in the nation and for being featured on January 26, 2005, in an episode of West Wing." There is a picture of Bill Clinton standing in the restaurant just in front of a framed picture of himself standing in the restaurant.

A man poked his head out of the kitchen and counted heads. Joe Kantor, a 65-year-old man who claims to have eaten at the Hamburg Inn every day for the past 34 years, had taken his usual spot at the far end of the room, and was focused on a folded Iowa Press-Citizen. Victoria Watson, a server, appeared to be wearing a mustache. "It feels waxy," she told the table of Johnson and Paul fans. Coming in drag, Watson explained, was one of two permissible forms of protest management allowed Hamburg staff. "It's the only way I can, like, stick it to him," she said. "Well that or we could dress in rainbow flags."

Before Santorum, Rick Perry was the last candidate to visit. In August, when Perry looked like a likely next president, middle-aged voters pressed against one another in the aisles, and protesters peered in from the street. There were no anti-Santorum protestors outside the Hamburg in November, perhaps because there was a teach-in at the university regarding the "corporatization of education," and Iowa City is not a town that can sustain two protests. But this is not, on any day, Rick Santorum country. Half past seven in the morning is an odd time to court a collegiate population, but that may have been, in Rick's Santorum's case, part of the point. "He's always been an authoritarian sexist douche," said someone at the Johnson/Paul table.

Santorum arrived quietly with two of his daughters. "He's gonna do 10, 15 minutes here," Fesler said. Before them was a tight rectangular room with tables along the sides and a counter down the middle. The Hamburg Inn No. 2 tends to suggest its own directionality to media-swarmed Meet-and-Greeters: Down the first aisle, photo opportunity at the back of the room, back up the second aisle, photo opportunity at the front of the room, and on to the next campaign stop.

Santorum stuck his hand out to the table of Johnson and Paul supporters. Drew Hjelm, a 27-year-old student, drew a large breath. "So," he said, "with the IAEA report coming out last week, what they said was that they continue to verify the non-diversion of nuclear materials from declared nuclear sites in Iran, so I was wondering, Why do you continue to say Iran has a nuclear weapons program when all the evidence suggests that they don't? Including all 17 of the federal intelligence agencies, the consensus is that there is no nuclear weapons program."

"Oh really?" Santorum said. "Uh huh."

Santorum cited a recent report of an explosion in Iran. "They're working on all that capability, aren't they," he said.

"No they're not," Hjelm said.

"No they're not?"

"No they're not."

"How do we know that?"

"How do you prove a negative?'

When the exchange was over the reporters followed Santorum to the back of the room, next to Joe Kantor and his issue of the Press-Citizen, where a video camera and the local news waited. Santorum stood in front of some stacked high chairs and straightened his jacket. "What I'm hearing from people," he told KCRG-TV9, "is, number one, you're on my list. Number two, we'd like to know more about you. But the national media isn't telling us."

Five, six reporters wrote down the line about the news media not telling us about Rick Santorum. Santorum moved to a group of very young looking women. A girl in a headband, up early to complete a high school assignment, listened with extreme politeness as Rick Santorum answered her question about education. "Are you here for an assignment too?" Santorum asked his next potential voter, a young man seated at the counter, who was, in fact, there for his political journalism class.

"Well," said the student after Santorum had moved on, "I got that assignment done."

Santorum shook some more hands and took a picture with the three high school students. He approached a set of glass jars, each labeled for a candidate, and coffee beans with which to vote. The KCRG camera and the swarm of print reporters awaited Santorum's participation in the "Coffee Bean Caucus." He searched for the jar labeled "Rick Santorum."

"Do I even have one?" he asked. Someone pointed to his jar, which was nearly empty. He dropped a coffee bean in, and left with some Hamburg t-shirts.

Well after Santorum departed, the reporters continued their search for non-reporters to interview. Robert "Ajax" Ehl, a young dishwasher at Hamburg, emerged to say that Santorum's visit was "annoying" for the slammed kitchen staff, "but not as annoying as his politics."

At midday, Rick Santorum's visit to the "Historic Hamburg Inn" would appear on KCRG-9's midmorning report. "Santorum isn't giving up on Iowa," an anchorwoman said before cutting to video of Santorum. "Number 1, you're on my list," he said. "Number 2, we'd like to know more about you." Then there was a shot of Santorum with the coffee bean, and the bean dropping into the glass jar, and the report was over.

Kerry Howley is a visiting writer at the University of Iowa. This is the first in a series of primary-state dispatches from outside the campaign bubble.

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