Twas the last weekend before the Primary

I caught up with the three Republican candidates for governor over the weekend.  Click here to read the wrap-up story — there are three mp3s at the bottom if you’d like to listen to the three speeches from Terry Branstad on Friday at the Iowa Veterans Home, from Bob Vander Plaats mid-day Saturday at a rally in Des Moines and from Rod Roberts on Saturday afternoon at The Farmer’s Kitchen in Atlantic.

Also this weekend The Des Moines Register released its poll of the race.  Short version:  Branstad 57 percent; Vander Plaats 29 percent; Roberts 8 percent.  The margin of error is 4.4 percent.

Here are some of my mental snapshots of the three candidates in the closing hours of the race:

Branstad was hoarse for the Friday evening event in Marshalltown, which was his fourth of the day.  He sprinkled in references to Lennox Industries and to his military service (he was speaking primarily to a small group of veterans).  There were about a dozen people when he walked into the room and by the time he was into his speech there were over 20, including the fellow who drives the campus mini-bus. 

Branstad had a senior moment as he was railing against the Democratic-led group which is financing campaign ads and mailings critical of his 16-year tenure as governor.  He couldn’t remember the group’s name: “Iowans for Responsible Government.”  Once Branstad recalled the name, he then told the crowd the group wasn’t that savvy because his campaign staff got the domain name and has put up a defense on the site.

In talking about a company that’s shutting down in his hometown of Lake Mills and moving the jobs elsewhere, Branstad said Governor Chet Culver “hasn’t even returned their calls” — calls from Lake Mills officials who want the state to be actively involved in dealing with the situation.

Branstad answered questions from the crowd for almost as long as he spoke.  Their questions were primarily about economic issues — jobs at Lennox and jobs in the wind industry.  But one of the smokers in the audience asked Branstad if he would repeal the $1 per pack cigarette tax hike Culver signed into law.  Branstad — as you may recall — was an anti-smoking crusader.  He answered the man by saying he would not have used the money raised by the tax increase as Culver has done and Branstad also complained that Democrats in the state legislature have spent all the money the state was paid from the multi-state settlement with tobacco companies.

There was a question about whether Branstad would again press to “privatize” state services.  Branstad said he didn’t want to do it at the expense of providing quality services, but he said the state budget problem means there will be consideration of all alternatives.

Branstad had offered a series of indictments of Culver’s leadership and after question #8, one of the men in the audience asked: “Can we impeach him?”  There was a bit of laughter at that suggestion, then a follow-up question about the cigarette tax — the same questioner asking if Branstad would repeal the $1.  Branstad said it was “not going to go away.”  He also bragged about Des Moines University becoming a tobacco-free campus.

That was another interesting point of the evening:  Branstad still talks about Des Moines University in the present tense, starting sentences with phrases like “We are.” 

The Vander Plaats event on Saturday morning was held in a cavernous hall at the Jordan Park Camp in West Des Moines.  There were about 300 people there, most of whom stood as there were just a few chairs lining the outside walls.  The crowd skewed decidedly younger than your normal Republican gathering, although there were 80 year olds as well as babies.  A woman stood on the sidewalk outside, offering rally-goers a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution as they walked into the event. 

Vander Plaats referenced the Tea Party movement at the on-set of his remarks to the crowd, saying something was “brewing in the air” — and that brew would yield a “surprise” Vander Plaats victory on Tuesday.  Vander Plaats gave a relatively short speech, which you can listen to here, and then introduced actor/martial arts champion Chuck Norris to the crowd.  Norris and his wife campaigned for Vander Plaats at a series of rallies around the state this past weekend. 

Norris and Vander Plaats spoke to three reporters just before Vander Plaats took the stage.  Norris had endorsed Mike Huckabee in late 2007 and campaigned with Huckabee (and Vander Plaats) before the January 3, 2008 Iowa Caucuses.

“I got very impressed with Iowa when I was here two years ago because what I saw with the people in Iowa is they look into the heart of the candidates and not their pocketbook because a lot of the candidates two years ago had a lot of money they were spending here in Iowa — millions and millions of dollars that Mike Huckabee didn’t have to spend, but yet the people voted for him because they saw in his heart that he was the best candidate to lead our country and I find the same thing with Bob Vander Plaats is that he has the same heart,” Norris said.

Rod Roberts and his wife, Trish, greeted people who arrived at The Farmer’s Kitchen in Atlantic.  Roberts was introduced to the crowd by a local Republican — lawyer Dave Wiederstein.  Roberts gave a speech that lasted about 30 minutes, then answered questions for another half hour. 

“We live in a state where we still emboss the county of residence on license plates because it matters to us where people are from,” Roberts said as he launched into a biography of himself and his family. 

Roberts promised to “remember western Iowa” and he declared 2010 a “change election” that’s coming “from the grassroots up.”  Roberts made two references to his age (he’s 52 years old) — I don’t know whether that was a way of comparing himself to the 63-year-old Branstad or not.  But Roberts did spend some time sort of promising to serve two-terms as governor (although he never said two-terms).  He did say this:  “The founders never intended for elected office to be a career path. It was an opportunity for citizens to step up and to serve fellow citizens and, when your time is done, get out of the way and go back to the life you live like the rest of us do.”

Roberts was asked whether a nice guy can win and he — as you might suspect — said yes.  Roberts said he wouldn’t “resort to name-calling” just to win and if that means he’ll lose, he added: “so be it.”

One of the people in the audience posed a question about “that rerun Terry Branstad.” 

The woman who owns The Farmer’s Kitchen made me a chocolate malt after the event was over, showed me pictures of the renovations of the ice-cream fountain portion of the restaurant and revealed her family had won an international chili cook-off in 2007.  Rod and Trish Roberts chatted with each person in the crowd as they left and then packed up their car with the red-and-white Rod Roberts campaign placards and yard signs that were left.

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About O.Kay Henderson

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