DAVENPORT, Iowa--I'm told the reason it remains illegal to raise chickens in Iowa City, where I live, is because Iowans moved to our relatively cosmopolitan college town to get away from the country people and, by extension, their chickens. Twentysomethings from bigger cities, where it is fashionable to raise your own chicks and harvest fresh eggs and place them decorously on gingham dish towels, come to Iowa thinking they will live the country life for a little while, only to find their neighbors shutting them down. I mention this by way of explaining my first impression of the 400 people who came to see Mitt Romney in a hotel in Davenport, Iowa, on Tuesday night: These are the people who would call the police on your illegal chickens.
The women have accessorized. They're wearing foundation, bronzer, silk scarves, pearls. There are men in ties, men in Banana Republic sweaters, over-scrubbed little blond boys in blue fleece. It is a crowd in which it is possible to linger on a face that seems remotely recognizable and wonder if you're staring at a news anchor whose name you used to know.
"I am not an evangelical Christian, and you're not an evangelical Christian," one Romney supporter tells another, by way of explaining the endorsement of Rick Santorum by Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa's most politically charged evangelical Christian. We are seated under chandeliers and gilded molding in the nicest room, the "historic Gold Room," of the Hotel Blackhawk, a progressive-era hotel that calls itself Davenport's most luxurious. The evangelical Christians, who chose Huckabee over Romney four years ago, do not tend to meet under chandeliers. Their bases of operation have been, that election cycle and this one, many dozens of common rooms in many dozen franchises of a chain restaurant called Pizza Ranch. Michelle Bachmann, another evangelical favorite, stopped at three of those on Wednesday.
The room is packed to capacity 45 minutes before Romney arrives. Among the hundreds of politely seated voters, one man is vigorously waving a large red foam "Mitt Romney '08" novelty baseball mitt.
"Oh, the mitts," a woman says. "We've got two in the closet. Didn't even think to bring 'em."
"It says '08 but so what," says the mitt-waver.
"Well, my shirt says '07!"
"I've got a 4-by-8 Romney sign up in my yard left over from '08."
"So put it up."
"It is up!"
"Remind me to go through that closet," the woman says to her husband. "I don't even know what else is up there—a fan?"
Romney supporters are packed along the aisles and spilling into the hallway, while hotel staff pass chairs over their heads. "They misunderestimated the number of chairs," someone says, and then, to friends in the aisle, "You should have come earlier, you would have gotten a seat!" Romney is late, which a woman notes George W. Bush would not have been; the former president was, apparently, always 15 minutes early. There are many such comments from serial meet-and-greeters, dropped knowledge about how such events usually proceed.
"I don't know why they don't open this room up," someone says, as the aisles grow so packed they begin to press against the seated guests, "that wall opens."
The mitt-waver begins to chant "We want Mitt," which does not catch on but provokes some indulgent giggles.
When Mitt finally arrives, he gives a polished speech about the difference between "opportunity America" and "entitlement America." He talks about reading from a prepared text, but barely glances at the pages in front of him while delivering perfect paragraphs of talking-point-studded prose: Free enterprise. Constitution. Low taxes. Social issues never come up, which is perhaps why Mitt never looks uncomfortable, never struggles to find a natural cadence, never emphasizes the wrong word in a practiced string of them. The biggest applause goes to his promise to "restore" the country rather than "transform" it. And though, in retrospect, it seems that the former would necessarily imply the latter, the enthusiasm with which this sentiment is received is interesting. This is a promise to avoid change. Romney is here to battle the forces of transformation, which implies not only Barack Obama but also his less dependably boring Republican opponents, who are louder, and better at chanting.
Ron Paul supporters, their average age about half that of the people in this room, are standing outside the hotel in a cold breeze coming off the Mississippi. They'd been shouting Ron Paul's name for a while when the Romney bus showed up, and which point they shouted even louder.
In the historic Gold Room, the talk of Paul is not flattering. "He wants to legalize prostitution!" I hear a scandalized adolescent girl tell her friends.
"He shot himself in the foot with those newsletters, there's no way now," says an older woman, who then loudly bemoans the lack of diversity in the room.
Iowa's unemployment rate is 6 percent. Corn prices are so high that families are selling their farms for prices that would have been unthinkable five years ago. And Davenport, a city that endures in the popular imagination as the gritty shuttered river town it may have been in the '80s, has, with its riverside skywalk and art museum and riverboat casino blasting "Monster Mash" a hundred yards down the Mississippi, lost whatever depressed industrial chic it once had. There is no apocalypse here. The candidate the state wants may not be the one into moon-mining, or the one a little too obsessed with the fact that Iowa has legalized gay marriage, or the one who wants to eliminate five federal departments.
All down the hallway that looks over the hotel lobby, the voters who couldn't stuff into the room are hoping for a glimpse of Romney. There are murmurs that he has arrived, and then all at once everyone is up and applauding. From the middle of the room, Romney is impossible to see. It's all backs, polite applause, and gilded molding. In the '80s, when maintenance of the hotel seemed pointlessly expensive, one of a long succession of owners hid the arches and skylights under a drop-down ceiling. But the ballroom is restored to its 1915 condition now, a symbol, according to the hotel, "of prosperity of the quad cities." The point is no longer to improve it, or reimagine it, but to keep the place from falling back into decay.
Kerry Howley is a visiting writer at the University of Iowa. This story is part a series of primary-state dispatches from people who live outside the campaign bubble.
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