McCain in Des Moines

First, a little bit about the crowd and then what follows is a lot about what McCain and his questioners had to say.

At 9:15 a.m. this morning the Hotel Fort Des Moines’ second-floor conference room was filling up with GOP regulars like Darryl Kearney, the man who managed Bob Dole’s presidential bid here in Iowa and has been raising money for the Iowa GOP for the past several cycles.  Iowa’s last two Republican governors — Bob Ray & Terry Branstad — were there, but they were both at Romney event this past Tuesday, too — neither has endorsed a candidate yet.   Branstad’s sons, though, are working opposing sides.  Youngest son Marcus is working for Romney.  Oldest son Eric is working at "Lincoln Strategies" with Chuck Larson.  Larson is working for McCain.

Maryls Popma, a conservative activist in Iowa who has signed on with McCain, was there shepherding people into the room.  I saw Samona Joy Smit Yentes walk in the room — Mona used to lobby at the statehouse for Iowa’s pro-life community.  And from the other side of that abortion debate, former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning was in the back of the room, periodically standing on the chair next to mine so she could see McCain over the heads and shoulders of the standing-room-only crowd. 

To kick off the event, the founder of the Concerned Women of America chapter in Iowa led the crowd in prayer.  McCain’s Iowa campaign chairman Dave Roederer then joked: "Maxine, I think we can probably all go home now.  You summed it up pretty well."  Next, Roederer invited a decorated soldier to lead the crowd in saying the pledge.

Roederer then launched into a pretty fiery warm-up speech, complete with snippets like —  Our country needs leaders like President Bush and McCain.  They don’t waver because of the flavor of the month.  (Nice rhyming, Dave.)  Roederer described McCain as a "pro-life, fiscal conservative" who "knows how to lead, not follow."

Roederer then passed off to his former boss, former Governor Terry Branstad.  "When your former chief of staff introduces you, you know you’re going to get a great introduction," Branstad joked.  Branstad then handed the floor to former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, a one-time Democrat who changed parties and ran for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination back in 1996.  (Gramm’s former Iowa campaign manager, Bob Haus, was in the room, too.  Haus worked on Forbes 2000, too.)

Branstad got a few laughs from the crowd when he mentioned "Dicky Flatts," a person Gramm mentioned in nearly every 1995 speech he gave in Iowa.  Gramm, however, did not mention Dicky.  Gramm instead told the crowd he’d stayed out of politics for the past few years after leaving the senate, and was there today to publicly endorse McCain. 

"When I left Washington I decided to leave the public policy debate and the talking-head role to those who were actually in the arena," Gramm said, in his classic Texas drawl. "…I’m here today to reassert my right as a private citizen to support John McCain for president and I want to tell you why I’m for John McCain.  First of all, we have not made a hard choice in America in 25 years.  The really difficult problems we swept under the rug and all of thsoe problems are going to fall in the lap of the next president."

Gramm, a former professor of economics, sounded a theme McCain himself stressed later — the need for an end to "wanton" wasteful spending in Washington. (McCain argues Republicans did not lose in 2006 because of Iraq, but primarily because the Republican base was dissatisifed with profligate spending and corruption in the Republican-led congress.  To make his point during a news conference, McCain told reporters no one can explain why Joe Lieberman was re-elected in a liberal state where his Democratic opponent was the voice for the "stop the war now" crowd without that perspective.)

"If you awnt to break the back of irresponsible spending in Washington, D.C., then John McCain is your man," Gramm said. "…There are some people who would like us to believe that pigs have wings, that would like us to believe that we can let government spent it and we can let you keep it.  That we can have more spending, more government, lower taxes and more freedom.  John McCain’s common sense conservatism tells him that can’t be….John McCain has been a lonely voice for fiscal responsibility."

Gramm handed off to McCain, who opened with a few of the jokes he’s told on the trail for a while — the "here’s the latest dope from Washington" line and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce joke about telling the crowd the Chamber wants you Iowans to know the temperature in Phoenix today is 72 degrees.  "We used to say in Arizona we have so little water that the trees chase the dogs," McCain quipped again.

"And those of you that needed an English translation of Phil’s remarks, we’ll provide them for you," McCain joked. 

"I don’t know if you heard the story about in the state prison, one inmate, they were in the chow line and one of ’em said to the other one: ‘The food was a lot better in here when you were governor,’" McCain joked, after thanking former Governors Ray and Branstad for attending.  The crowd laughed.  "It’s a joke, governor," McCain said, looking at the two.

For the following, often-told-McCain joke, POTUS stands for President of the United States.  "I again would like to ask for your sympathies for the people of Arizona because as you know Barry Goldwater ran for POTUS, and Morris Udall from Arizona ran for POTUS and Bruce Babbitt ran for POTUS and I, from Arizona, ran for POTUS," McCain said.  "Arizona may be the only state in America where mothers don’t tell children that someday they can grow up and be POTUS."

McCain then mentioned a "Gold Star Grandmother" in the crowd and her problem in getting miltiary benefits to help raise the granddaughter she is now raising.  "That brings us, my dear friends, to the issue that is now being bloviated on the floor of the U.S. Senate this morning," McCain said.  "The issue of a non-binding, meaningless, sense-of-the-senate resolution on Iraq.  Your tax dollars at work….What they’re doing today in the United States Senate is merely a stunt on the part of the Democratic leadership." 

McCain talked about Iraq and called the president’s troop surge idea a "viable strategy" but warned that "things are very dire in Iraq.  We have made many, many mistakes….I am not guaranteeing you that we are going to succeed.  I believe we can succeed."

The next topic McCain raised was ethanol.  "As Chuck Grassley insists that I do, I had my glass of ethanol this morning and I’m feeling good," McCain said, as the crowd laughed.  "I hope you are, too.  It’s great for you.

"We need energy independence.  We need it for a whole variety of reasons and obviously ethanol is a part of that equation.  When oil was $10 a barrell, ethanol doesn’t make much sense ecnomically.  When oil is $50 a barrell, it makes a lot of sense and I believe that what’s happening has already been done in the country of Brazil where they basically shifted their entire automobile fleet to E85 flexible fuel.  I’m not sure we can achieve that, but we certainly ethanol’s going to play a major role in energy independence.

"I was just talking with Governor Ray & Governor Branstad about another aspect of this energy independence.  My friends, if you look around the world you will see there are danger points and vulnerabilities from where we get oil just about everywhere in the world, whether it be in Venezuela where they’ve got this very unusual dictator who, as you know, is very anti-American; the way that the Russians are behaving.  I was in a conference in Germany over the weekend and President Putin of (Russia) gave one of the old Cold War-style speeches as he addressed the conference there. Nigeria, Iran — look around the world — there is a compelling argument for us to be energy independence and ethanol has to obviously play a big part of it. 

"Now, my friends, also nuclear power has to be a big part of it.  I know everybody in this room does not agree with that.  I promise you nuclear power, if you believe that climate change is real — which I do and I’ll be glad to talk more of you about it — nuclear power is safe.  We have Navy ships sailing around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on it.  We always imitate the French.  We always imitate the French.  Eighty percent of the French electricity today is being generated by nuclear power. We’ve got to find a place to store it or we’ve got to reprocess the waste, but I feel very strongly about that and I hope we can have that part of our national debate.

"So I’m proud of what has happened here in Iowa and about the country as far as ethanol is concerned and I think you’re going to see it expanded into other bases for it besides that of corn and I think you’re even going to see a larger and larger demand for ethanol," McCain said as he concluded the portion of his "speech" decated to energy issues.  (McCain has long opposed the "subsidies" — tax breaks — for ethanol fuel but in his trip to Iowa last fall McCain said he supports putting more federal money into research and development.)

McCain mentioned immigration reform "because if I don’t bring it up, you will."  He closed by talking about why he is running for president.  McCain described his expereience as a prisoner of war "as an unwelcome guest of the Vietnamese" and told the crowd he was "inspired" by the beliefs of a man who was California’s Governor at the time — Ronald Reagan, who talked about "that shining city on the hill…I share that optimism," McCain concluded, before opening the floor to questions.

The first 11 questions were about the war in Iraq.    The first questioner, a man, has been on one combat tour in Afghanistan and two combat tours in Iraq.  He told McCain the media is not telling the stories of the progress that’s being made in Iraq.   "Nobody here sees the good we’ve done.  The propaganda that is on the television…they don’t show the success," he said.  "How as president and the Republican Party going to change the way we show that to the American people….You see 3000 dead Americans, but how many dead insurgents?"

McCain asked the soldier to repeat his service record in Iraq and Afghanistan and the crowd stood and applauded.  "We are all, including me, humbled to be in your company and I think the response of the people here this morning clearly indicate that there is great appreciation for what you and your comrades have done and those of your comrades have sacrificed.  I think there’s great appreciation and I think sometimes it’s obscurbed by a lot of the bad news in some of the areas.  There is some bad news, as you know.  You experienced it yourself.  We raised people’s expectations.  Mission Accomplished.  A few dead-enders.  Last throes.  All of those comments that made Americans believe that we were on the verge of getting this thing done when in reality on the ground as you saw it there’s a long, hard, tough struggle that we should have told people that it is.  That contributed to the difficulties that we are experiencing today with a lot of Americans.

"…I do believe that even those who are opposed to the war honor your service, but I also believe that there are success stories, as you said, that are not reported, not as well-known…There’s a lot of good news in an Bar province.  Having said that, if Baghdad is on the verge of chaos, as you also know, an Bar province doesn’t matter…Sometimes I liken it to when we turn on the television in the morning we don’t see pictures of the traffic flowing smoothly on the freeway but if there’s a 10-car pile-up we get to see a lot of it and that’s sort of the nature of media reporting, but I do think that there could be a lot better but again, Americans are still — thank God — so proud of you and we all are.  You make us all humble," McCain concluded.

A woman asked McCain what needs to be done to disarm Iran. (McCain, in referencing Iran’s president, said the man had a name "I refuse to learn how to pronounce."  Some in the crowd laughed and applauded.)  Next, a man in the crowd asked McCain to estimate the cost of being successful in Iraq, "rounding it off to, say, the closest $25 billion."   

"I’d like to be able to give you an answer, sir," McCain said in reply.  "You reflect the frustration that many Americans feel."

The man asked a follow-up: "My son has been in Afghanistan and Iraq five or six times now.  He’s in the Air Force, currently stationed in England and I’m interested in how soom we’re going to get everybody back home."

McCain expressed thanks for the son’s service, but moved on to another questioner.  McCain began interacting with the man, who said he spent seven years in Iran as a child.

"Did you disagree or agree with my assessment?" McCain interjected.  "I"d be interested."

"I agree with your assessment only it’s worse than what you projected, I think, because with what we’re doing in Iraq — and of course I also have 26 years of experience in the Marine Corps, having served in Vietnam at about the same time, Senator," the man repled, then McCain interrupted.

"Why didn’t you come get me?" McCain asked.  The crowd laughed and applauded.

"If they’d allowed us to put all three Marine divisions abreast, we could have come up and gotten you.  The Marine Corps always loves to rescue the Navy when we get a chance to," the man replied, to hooting and laughter, as well as applause.

"That’s what you get for being a smart ass," McCain replied.  The questioner went on to talk about the connection of Iraq and Iran.  "If we do not take care of this problem in Iraq, Israel understands that they’er going to have to do it all on their own and they will not stop.  They cannot," the questioner said. "It’s their survival and we will not be able to control events at that point and as things move on in Iran, you’re going to have a war whether you like it or not and it’s going to involve nuclear weapons. That’s the only way that Israel can survive and that is the real danger out of all of this and if we do not take care of it and I know Nancy Pelosi just believes, as she said yesterday, that we have this resolutions, we bring the troops home, that will end the war.  That is so far from the truth, as the senator knows and that’s the story I think that needs to be out there.  People do not understand that."

"I thank you, sir, for your comment," McCain replied.  "And I just would add to it, then the Sunni, especially the Saudis, would feel compelled to help Sunnis who are under very strong attack by the Shi’ia sponsored by the Iranians, as you know, and then, of course, if the Kurds decide that they want to be independent the Turks have said that they would never stand for such a scenario either so you really could see a regional conflict there of significant proportions."

The next question was about the troop surge and whether McCain had a "plan B" if the troop surge doesn’t work.  The questioner asked a follow up, again asking for a "plan B."

"I don’t know what the options are because if we fail here — I’m going to give you a little straight talk," McCain said, using one of his campaign-catch phrases.  "It would be very difficult to maintain the support of the American people."

The questioner didn’t seem to like that answer, and McCain asked him to reply.

"I don’t know what to do myself, but there had better be a plan B for how to contain things in the region if we can’t pacify Iraq," the man in the crowd said.  "Somebody should be thinking what to do."

"thank you, sir," McCain replied.  "I promise you I think about it every single day, every single day and I’d like to give you a good option.  I can give you a lot of bad options, but I think about it every day and thank you.  It’s a very valid point."

The next question came from a man who said he was Vietnam veteran and a member of the American Legion Post where Marilyn Gabbard, the Iowa National Guard Sergeant Major who was killed recently in Iraq. "Iowans are dying, too, as you well know," he said.  The man asked whether there’s a need to reinstate the draft and how to better equip the troops in the field.       

(McCain does not favor a draft.)

The next question was about treating the veterans who’re coming home with post-traumatic stress.  The following question was about, essentially, how the US could apply some sort of "chemotherapy" that would cure people involved in jihad.  Next came a question about the fraud and abuse in the US government contracts awarded in connection with the war.  The next question was about what the questioner described as the violence inherent in Islam. 

At this point, McCain had been on stage for over an hour all the questions had been related to the war   The next question was about the US economy, followed by two questions about health care situations being faced by the questioners themselves, then a woman asked McCain how he would advance the pro-life cause.   

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.