I spent last Friday shadowing Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards — who will be answering your questions at the MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue on Thursday at 12 p.m. ET — and his campaign as he met supporters and “shoppers” in Iowa, and narrowly avoided a budding tornado on a desolate, rural highway. — Kim Stolz
We arrive at John Edwards’ headquarters in Des Moines. On our drive around Des Moines, we saw the HQs of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Representative Ron Paul and others. Edwards’ HQ building — considerably larger and more populated than the others, many of which are storefronts — seems to be a representation of the attention and time that he has put into campaigning in Iowa — he has spent more time in the state than any other Democratic or Republican candidate so far.
We follow Caitlin, the Edwards campaign’s press wrangler, to pick up other members of the press and drive to Adventureland Amusement Park, where Edwards will give his first speech of the day.
We arrive at Adventureland. Edwards will be giving a speech on poverty and education to the nonprofit East Polk Interagency Association. In stark contrast to the rollercoasters and water parks outside, the crowd inside the venue has an average age of about 60.
After two local speakers, Edwards takes the stage. This speech, unlike the others of the day, is not meant to follow the vibe of campaigning. Rather, it is informational and positions Edwards as a strong and knowledgeable voice for fighting poverty and improving education in Iowa. He also speaks of his universal health-care plan, stating that he is the first candidate to come out with a comprehensive plan. Other ideas Edwards puts forth in his speech include raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and explaining his College for Everyone plan, his modifications for No Child Left Behind, and his goals for treating mental health with the same level of care as physical health (see “John Edwards: Why He Wants To Be Your Next President” ).
The only confusing moment for me comes when he references the “Iowa one-finger wave.” I have yet to understand what that means, but the Iowa crowd roars with laughter. [Editor’s note: The “one-finger wave” refers to a casual hello from the driver of a passing vehicle; two fingers is a more enthusiastic greeting.]
Edwards amuses the crowd with an analogy about how “you can’t fatten a hog by weighing it,” in reference to the inefficiency of evaluating students based on test scores. He notes that in other states the joke receives “blank looks.”
We interview some of the younger audience members about Edwards’ education plan. They seem thrilled with the idea that Edwards truly “cares about [them].”
The Edwards caravan has left us behind, but without much panic, we find directions to Brody Middle School, where Edwards will be speaking to teachers, students and parents about Iowa’s education system.
Edwards takes the stage. He talks about Bush’s “insincerity” regarding “fixing our public schools” and then states his three pillars for reform:
» Every child must be prepared to succeed when they show up in the classroom; affordable textbooks and other supplies must be made available. Another part of this “pillar” is to start education early, with a mandatory universal preschool plan.
» Higher pay and respect for teachers. He proposes a “Teacher University” and a higher level of weight given to teachers’ evaluation of students’ progress.
» Setting higher expectations for schools: smaller classes, fully funding special education and providing more money and attention to struggling schools.
Edwards rolls out his “hog-weighing” and “blank faces” joke. The crowd roars with laughter — the rural references are working!
Edwards finishes his speech and a scrum of reporters rush to ask him questions about education, health care, Iraq and many other issues. I manage to make my way through the crowd, and get his attention for a moment. I ask him about what life will be like for 18-year-olds — who are voting for the first time this year — when they are 22 and he might be finishing his first term. He responds a bit rhetorically (but with his general level of inspirational talk) that 18-year-olds are the future of this country, and that with his plan, they will be succeeding in college and ready to contribute to society in a meaningful way after they graduate. He also talks about how in his presidency, fewer 18-22-year-olds will have to contend with the current struggles surrounding poverty and health care.
We are getting ready to leave. An elderly man approaches me and spends 10 minutes asking me about my shoes. He comments that they are the most “exciting” and “interesting” shoes he has ever seen. He is wearing brown loafers and black pants. I move on.
We sit down for a quick break at a fast-food restaurant. I am disappointed with my chicken carbonara sandwich and eat three bags of chips to negate the taste.
We meet up with the Edwards team again and begin the drive to Guthrie, our next location, which is about two hours from Des Moines. On the way, we encounter what looks like the beginnings of a wild tornado and I expect to see a cow fly across the car. A severe storm commences, but we make it through and soon find ourselves at Guthrie Center High School.
I engage in a debate with the people sitting in the crowd around me, who are on the fence about their support for Edwards. They are “shopping” for candidates, they tell me. At one point, a woman (probably in her 50s) interjects, “I don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell.” At that moment, Edwards enters the room and takes the mic.
Edwards gives a speech focusing on Iraq and health care, delivering the words on his Web site basically verbatim. He calls for sending President Bush timetables for withdrawal, initiating a situation where Bush will “sign it or go broke.” I am surprised at his animosity as he forcefully exclaims, “Bush is stubborn and doesn’t think he can make a mistake — but he’s made plenty of mistakes. We need him to be forced to get out of this war.”
When speaking about health care, Edwards says that “Washington doesn’t work” and that the changes he proposes will fix the corruption and dysfunction in the health-care system. He also comments on Senator Clinton’s plan, calling it “a good plan, because it’s basically my plan.” The crowd laughs.
With the exception of a few Iowans who are clearly angry at the Bush administration and randomly interject personal anecdotes, the crowd is respectful and interested in what Edwards has to say. A woman asks him why he wants to be president — considering that he has everything he could ever want — and his answer (“I have had everything you could ever have in this country, but I’m here because my parents sacrificed for me, and my country was there for me — I want every single child in America to have the chances that I have had”) evokes tears from more than a few people in the crowd.
The “hog weighing” and “blank looks” joke is used yet again. The crowd laughs, and those who have been following him all day smile as insiders to his speechwriting.
Edwards finishes his speech and meets me outside for a one-on-one interview.
After the one-on-one, we broke from the Edwards crew, got dinner in Guthrie at a place called Prime Time. (Note: This is a nice restaurant, but I would not recommend the appetizer plate.)
Looking back on the day, even after all the time he’s spent in the state, Edwards’ words, charisma and familiar eyes took Iowa by surprise — and by storm. After speaking with a plethora of Iowans after each speech, it seems likely that many people who were “shopping” for their perfect candidate may have found him.
The MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue with John Edwards will take place Thursday at 12 p.m. ET. The entire dialogue will be webcast live through both MTV.com and MySpaceTV.com, and will then be rebroadcast on MTV on Thursday at 7 p.m.