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The Most Important Spiel of the Day

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page C02

BOSTON, July 29 -- There is nothing at a political convention that is more exhilarating and scintillating, more life-affirming and rabidly anticipated than the daily state delegation breakfast briefings. This is especially true on the fourth consecutive day of such briefings -- meaning four consecutive days of Sterno-heated eggs, sweaty carafes of fruit juice and some of the least memorable political speeches you will hear in your life.

"We had a guy from the Board of Equalization speak to us yesterday," says Tom McInerney, a member of the Democratic National Convention rules committee for California. "He is pretty dynamic."


An A-list speaker: Vice presidential nominee John Edwards addresses Michigan Democrats at the Thursday breakfast. (Charles V. Tines -- Detroit News Via AP)


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McInerney is pretty sarcastic.

But this doesn't mean he won't awake Friday and experience a soul-crushing sadness when he realizes there will be no delegation breakfast for him to attend. He'll have no reason to haul his carcass out of bed at 7:30 -- after getting to sleep at 3 a.m. -- and join his delegation on the fourth floor of the Westin Copley Place hotel.

Thursday, thanks to the generosity of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (the breakfast's sponsor), the California delegates heard from state party chairman Art Torres and guest speakers Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, among others.

Each delegation meets between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., in a hotel ballroom (or conference room, if the delegation is small enough). "Oh good Looooord," Iowa senator Tom Harkin says when asked how many of these he has attended in his career. He talks as if he were describing a hernia.

Or, by Harkin's estimation, 25 to 30 hernias -- the number of conventions he has attended multiplied by four breakfasts each week, give or take a few absences or double-dips. Asked if any of the breakfasts were memorable, he shrugs, sighs and says, "Blurrrrrr."

After a while, the breakfasts tend to run together like sunny-side-up eggs. But these are hardy politicians and they endure.

On Monday Harkin gave a speech to the Iowa delegation at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel. He spoke for 15 minutes -- ruminating about a recent trip to Maine, about FDR, about polio, about John Kerry, about the soul of the Democratic Party. And by the end of his speech, one Iowa delegate could be seen dozing off at his table. Harkin violated a basic tenet of delegation breakfast speaking:

"Be brief, be uplifting and be out of there," says Rep. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The breakfasts are well attended even as they are widely dreaded. In fact, many politicians, particularly ambitious ones, tend to hopscotch from breakfast to breakfast, addressing multiple delegations in a single day.

Menendez was a frequent speaker this week, as was convention chairman Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a possible candidate for president in 2008. MSNBC commentator Bill Press was another staple on the circuit this week.

Press has a book to hawk, the subtly titled "Bush Must Go," which were purchased en masse -- 5,000 copies -- by Democratic donor Milan Panic and distributed to delegates. "Delaware was the first one I did," Press says, a distinction to rival Delaware's status as the first state to ratify the Constitution.

Yesterday, Delaware delegates got to hear Karl Agne, a Delaware-born Democratic pollster.

The bigger states and swing states tend to get the A-list speakers, such as keynote speaker Barack Obama, James Carville and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- all three of whom spoke at the New York breakfasts this week.

On the other hand, delegates from Idaho got to hear . . . let's see, who did they get to hear?

"I'm sort of drawing a blank here," says Gail Bray, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Idaho.

Bray -- "That's Bray, as in giving voice to the donkey, get it?" -- is walking out of Ballroom 2 at the Radisson Hotel, trying to cough up names.

"One of Kerry's crew boat people talked to us," she says. The delegation also got to hear Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, but their speeches were actually delivered to the Washington state delegation and piped into Idaho's ballroom.

Washington state delegates got a special treat on Thursday. After enduring three breakfasts at the Radisson, the delegates, like well-behaved schoolkids being rewarded with a field trip, had their delegation briefing at Cheers, the bar that inspired the hit TV series.

Sen. Maria Cantwell is standing outside the Radisson before heading to Cheers. Her eyes are bloodshot, but she's a soldier.

"These people are the heart and soul of the party and they want to hear from their elected officials," she says. She heads to her car.

"We going over to Cheers now?" she asks an aide.

"No," he says. "Gotta do Alaska first."


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