Gifts and pocket fillers on the campaign trail

February 3, 2012

LAS VEGAS — A pair of hand-knit slippers, adorned with a Mormon symbol. Rosary beads. A tiny stack of yard signs. An autographed Ron Paul placard.

Nevada had its strange moment in the political spotlight this week, as stage-managed campaigns roared through with rallies and TV ads. This was faux intimacy, done in a city where faux is a fact of life: The casinos are named after Paris and New York, and the dust-dry streets around them are named, aspirationally, for trees and oceans.

But, carried in pockets and purses, there were small signs that it wasn’t all fake.

People on the campaign trail carried little items and objects for the candidates to touch or take home — teddy bears, rosaries, a skateboard painted with Rep. Ron Paul’s face.

In these things were clues to the Great Unspokens that all Nevada’s political stagecraft was supposed to either obscure or exploit. Mitt Romney’s sway over the state’s Mormon voters. Newt Gingrich’s unraveling organization. Rick Santorum’s family pain.

And, among the voters, a lingering hope that there might still be something personal and intimate left in this process of choosing a president of 300 million Americans.

“I want him to remember me,” said Bertha Brandau, 77, after she’d pressed her hand-knit slippers into the hands of a surprised Mitt Romney on Wednesday night in Las Vegas. “His feet are going to get cold, back East.”

ROMNEY

At a Romney rally on Wednesday night, people clutched the things they’d been given on the way in. Everybody got a big Romney sign for the living-room window. An instruction sheet: “How to Caucus in Nevada.” A small American flag.

The hyper-organized Romney campaign had provided all of these props — and instructions on when to use them. “If you’ve got flags and signs, this would be the song to raise them,” said a singer who warmed up the crowd for Romney, leaving nothing to chance.

When Romney came out, he plowed through his standard stump speech, including the big applause line about how President Obama had said he’d be a one-term president if he couldn’t fix the economy. Romney said nothing specific that was tailored to Nevada’s Mormon population. In 2008, Mormons made up a quarter of Nevada’s caucus voters, and 95 percent voted for Romney, who is also Mormon.

But then, just as Romney was leaving the stage, he met Brandau — a fellow church member, too excited to play it cool.

She was a retired nurse (“If you ever need an enema, let me know,” she said to a reporter later, instead of “goodbye.”). She had guessed that Romney wore a size 11.5. On the slippers themselves, she had knitted a beehive — a symbol of the Mormon church and of Utah.

“I said, ‘These are your beehive slippers.’ Oh, he smiled and hugged me,” Brandau said. “And I kissed him on the side of his face.”

As Romney left the stage, then, he wore what he often wears — a blue shirt and blue suit jacket, with an American flag on the lapel. A uniform designed not to stand out. And, in his hands, he carried a pair of bright-colored slippers, adorned with black-and-yellow beehives.

PAUL

At a rally held by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) on Tuesday night in a casino ballroom, people brought tricornered hats and handmade signs (”Will work for freedom!”). One 23-year-old Army vet who admired Paul’s minimalist foreign policy ideas waived a skateboard, adorned with Paul’s smiling face.

In another corner of the crowd, James Skeary had brought his own totem: a 2008 Ron Paul for President sign, autographed by the candidate himself.

“I think he believes like I do, that the government should not own your labor,” said Skeary, a stout and strong man with a beard that traced his chin line. In particular, Skeary said, he agreed with Paul’s criticisms of the federal income tax system.

For five recent years, Skeary said, he simply declined to pay federal income tax — believing that the law did not actually require it. “Now, I’ve got somebody that I can believe in,” Skeary said.

Skeary is a painter who works on construction projects. During Vegas’s building slump, he was without work for more than a year. But he finally started a new job last week.

“It’s a government job,” he said. Building a new Veterans Administration hospital. Skeary said he didn’t see a problem with this. “I’m okay. If it was the IRS, I’d still say no.”

GINGRICH

Gingrich, the candidate himself, usually wears a small lapel pin — blue with white stars, the battle flag of Gen. George Washington. And he carries a famously overstuffed wallet, crammed with a profusion of family photos and other papers.

Here, it’s possible to know the man by the contents of his suit: highly confident. Mindful of history. And struggling to maintain order in his own world.

In a small tea-room on the outskirts of Las Vegas, that last quality was the one troubling Gingrich supporter Don Dolan.

Dolan had been impressed by Gingrich’s past success as House Speaker. “Gingrich, to me, is almost like a modern-day Jefferson. He’s thought through all these issues,” Dolan said. “He’s got a decision before the question is asked.”

But, when Dolan couldn’t get help from the candidate’s disorganized, understaffed Nevada campaign. So he advertised online for his own event for Las Vegas supporters.

Out of a city of 583,000, 11 people came. And Dolan didn’t even have enough “Newt” yard signs to go around: He came in carrying just nine.

“It’s all we could get,” Dolan told them. “They’re few and far between in Nevada.”

Dolan, a former military man who has let his red hair grow long in retirement, taught the group about the complexities of the state’s caucuses. They would arrive at precinct sites, give speeches about Gingrich (Dolan had printed out talking points) and then vote.

“Has anybody else been to training for caucuses” before this? Dolan asked, finally. Nobody had.

By the end of his meeting, Dolan was thinking about what might have been. A few more yard signs. A few of those big signs to put out by the highway. Just think.

“Really, I mean, what can we do?” Dolan said, looking at reality again. “This is all we’ve got.”

SANTORUM

At Santorum’s rallies in Nevada, much of what people brought him was meant for his three-year-old daughter, Bella. She was born with a rare genetic disorder and was recovering back home from a frightening bout with pneumonia.

People gave Santorum a teddy bear that shouted “I love you!” when you squeezed it. A framed picture of a saint. And rosary beads. Santorum always takes the beads home, where he’s often in need of new ones.

“They’re always breaking,” he says, when he uses them. Not made like they used to be.

Tuesday was a very bad day for Santorum, when he was trounced in Florida and arrived in Nevada to find only small crowds waiting for him. “Senator Santorum ... is running for President of the United States,” said the woman who introduced him. Slowly, like people might be hearing this for the first time.

On this day, Santorum was carrying some of his usual candidate accessories. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. A snap-shut makeup compact.

“She is doing just great!” Santorum was saying to a TV camera that night, talking to Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren after checking himself in the compact’s mirror. “She had a very rough go of it.”

And he was carrying very personal reminders of the family he’d left behind. An iPhone, for the photos his wife sends of Bella. A tiny silver angel on his lapel to remind Santorum of his son Gabriel, who died shortly after birth in 1996.

“I have an angel on my shoulder,” Santorum said, and there was a hint of breaking in his voice.

Santorum was also carrying something unintended, and invisible. His nose was running. After spending time at his ill daughter’s bedside, Santorum thought he had caught some of her germs.

So he carried a wadded, used tissue, along with everything else. Hopefully, the candidate said, it was just a little cold.

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