After the sound and fury, the exodus

January 4, 2012

Wednesday began with the emptying of the Chuck Truck. The gray, 5.7-liter V8 Dodge Ram had been the engine of former senator Rick Santorum’s surge, ferrying him around Iowa with volunteer Chuck Laudner behind the wheel. Surveying the megacab the day after the Iowa caucuses, the 47-year-old political operative sorted out the detritus of a miraculous three-week ride: some rented sound equipment, a tangle of power cords and chargers, assorted gloves and scarves.

“There’s really everything you can imagine,” Laudner said from his Rockford home. “People would jump on, jump off and leave things behind.”

The morning after a historic and chaotic night of caucus results that came down to an eight-vote difference between first-place Mitt Romney and second-place Santorum, the city of Des Moines was trying to apply reason to momentous events that had passed in a blur.

For Laudner, like many who followed the dizzying Iowa caucuses down to the wee-hour resolution, Wednesday was a day of making deferred decisions about what’s next.

“I literally made no plan past 7 p.m. on January 3,” Santorum’s Iowa sherpa said. Is there time to go to New Hampshire, or is it best to grab a little rest and saunter down to South Carolina? First up for Laudner was a hearty, hard-earned meal: “I killed a breakfast burger at Perkins.” And for the Chuck Truck? An oil change on Thursday.

It was a different kind of day for Alice Stewart, communications director for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Her boss decided after a night of prayer and rest to end her presidential bid.

“I was woken up with the news this morning,” said Stewart, who had to hastily reassemble reporters at a West Des Moines ballroom where Bachmann and her husband had danced, appearing jubilant, onstage after her concession speech the night before.

But mostly Des Moines tried to resume its paces. Jessica Lindsey, a 32-year-old bartender at Jethro’s BBQ, expected there would be fewer lunch hour visits from media types. They had never asked for the eight screens to be switched away from ESPN channels. “It’s a sports bar, and if they did, we’d deny ’em,” Lindsey said.

She supported Texas Rep. Ron Paul for the second time in four years and did not really mind the seven robocall messages left on her cellphone. She made her own speech for Paul at her Urbandale caucus site and served as one of many observers who watched officials tally votes and phone results into the registrar. Her fellow voters teased the official, she recalled, even as he was trying to be transparent about his process: “He could have just called a Kum & Go [a convenience store chain] and called the real place later on,” she said.

The local media and political players were still a little discombobulated after their political Super Bowl.

“It’s like the rapture!” Rod Peterson, news director at WHO-TV, joked, noting evidence of activity strewn around campaign headquarters that had gone from busy hives to empty husks overnight. “There are empty seats and empty pop bottles and overflowing trash cans.”

He noted that out-of-town journalists, like the candidates, had rushed for the airports.

Peterson was proud that his reporters had kept track of Occupy Caucus protesters all through the night, though at 2 a.m. some of the protesters were arranging rides to New Hampshire as they shot pool and laughed at Fox News coverage at the Locust Tap near the Capitol.

Then again, Des Moines on Wednesday looked to some who come downtown for their jobs like it does on any busy, sunny day. Kris Curry, 21, who works at Jaded Lotus Tattoo Parlor, right next to WHO-TV, said he had not voted the night before. He admitted he didn’t know he was supposed to.

“I body-pierce. I stick to that weird little industry,” he said, showing off neck tattoos and “snake bite” studs under his lip. “So what’s this caucus about?”

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