Walking A Hard Line On Campaign Trail in Iowa

Tancredo campaigns Wednesday in Des Moines during the parade kicking off the Iowa State Fair.
Tancredo campaigns Wednesday in Des Moines during the parade kicking off the Iowa State Fair. "Sure, there's that nostalgic part of me that idealizes an America that probably never existed," he says. (By Mary Chind -- The Des Moines Register)
By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

DES MOINES -- From a hill in a park an hour and a half away from Des Moines, one can see buffalo grazing on a field below. The morning sky has darkened with rain clouds and a light wind brushes nearby corn. This is summer in the Midwest, a reminder, somehow, of what our country is, and of who we think we are.

Ron Duncan, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, and his wife, Connie, step out of their RV on Wednesday. They pass for an advance team for the presidential campaign of five-term Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). For a couple of weeks, they've set up signs and banners and made sure there are enough stickers for those who show up to hear the man whose hard line against illegal immigration and its runoff issues has made him a catalyst for many here in the heart of the heart of the country.

"A year ago I saw all these people marching with foreign flags in the immigration protests and decided to get off my recliner," Ron explains as he puts up a banner at the front of the driveway of the education center in Swan Lake State Park. "I asked what happened to the culture I grew up in. When I heard this man, I decided this was a man I could follow."

Connie wears an ankle-length denim skirt and, like her husband, a T-shirt that reads: "I'm a Member of Tom's Army Against Amnesty!" She shares Ron's devotion not only to Tancredo, but to halting a Latin American invasion. It's an assault, they say, not only against native blue-collar workers unwilling to take lower wages, but on the idea of the United States itself.

"He really has the concerns of America at heart," Connie says of Tancredo. "He's concerned about the culture of America itself. What's happening to the bedrock of American culture."

In another time, the Duncans might be just another couple working for a candidate as a way of passing the time before the Hawkeyes and Cyclones begin their football seasons in Iowa City and Ames. But during a summer when an immigration bill supported by the Democratic leadership and a Republican president died after nationwide protest, their man's second-tier candidacy gained attention. The question regarding Tancredo is simple: Is one issue able to push a campaign to new heights? Will it serve him well in today's Ames straw poll? And should Rudy or Mitt or Fred or John be worried?

From a distance it's easy to say no. Tancredo has little money and a young staff largely without political experience. Often during the televised debates, he's pushed off to the side. One couldn't blame Tancredo if he decided to play Tetris on his cellphone while waiting for the moderator's question.

But it's here, on the ground, that the 61-year-old former civics teacher finds people willing to not only listen but enlist in his cause. Speaking to largely older crowds in town halls, he mostly ignores Iraq and Darfur and universal health care. Where he reaches them is in his pledge to drive the nation's 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants back to their native homes. He speaks against bilingual education, calling English the glue that "holds the country together."

In his stops -- attended by anywhere from 20 to 100 people -- he reads a letter from a woman unable to find crew socks in a California Wal-Mart until she finds a black worker, who, unlike her co-workers, knows the language. He talks about crime and the influx of drugs, and of a nation whose sovereignty has been compromised. He shakes his head at a bilingual edition of an Iowa paper and proudly reads the beginning of a newspaper story about an illegal immigrant in Colorado having to return to Mexico because of stepped-up requirements for authentic documentation.

Then comes Bay. Yes, Bay Buchanan -- the onetime treasurer of the United States under Ronald Reagan who managed her brother Pat's three bids for the presidency. Yes, that Bay -- the woman who cuts a swath the size of a small Latin American country in any room she enters with the sleek appearance of a debutante and the loud, impassioned voice of a South Side Chicago ward boss.

As the woman who convinced Tancredo to run, Buchanan -- who quit her gig on CNN to do this -- not only serves as his campaign chairwoman but almost as his co-candidate. Following each Tancredo speech, she will address the crowd, urging, pleading, begging for people to attend the Ames straw poll while lashing out against the established candidates. At one event, her book "The Extreme Makeover of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton" was set out next to Tancredo's "In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America's Border and Security." Both were given away in exchange for a donation.

" 'Partners' is the word I would use," Buchanan says of her campaign role. "We work very well together."

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