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."
"You need the cause," she says, speaking of the campaign's focus on illegal immigration. "The cause will get them out to the straw poll when they're not feeling well, and we have a cause. I want to come slowly and come over the top. I want to be the one coming up. I want the other guy looking over his shoulder."
An easy banter exists between them beyond the stage. Sitting down for a quick lunch following the Swan Lake event, Tancredo says, "I wonder when Fred Thompson's gonna make his announcement?"
"Labor Day is the latest day he's giving us," Buchanan says.
When someone interjects that the late start date could be attributed to "Law & Order," the NBC program Thompson recently left, Buchanan says, "He gets money from the reruns. Because of the rules, they'd have to give equal time. They would have to put Tom on. Tom on all the time."
"Except they'd make me the rapist he's arresting or something," Tancredo says.
"No, you'd be the suspect," Buchanan says. "At the end of the show you might be redeemed."
* * *
It's unclear what constitutes redemption for Tancredo. He says he is a pariah to his party. According to Tancredo, Bush adviser Karl Rove once called him a traitor to the president and to Republicans, and said that Tancredo should never again "darken the doorstep to the White House."
Tancredo's devotion to a single cause seems to energize him. On Wednesday evening, marching in the parade through downtown Des Moines kicking off the Iowa State Fair, Tancredo, dressed in a short-sleeved checkered shirt and a white baseball cap, runs ahead of his supporters and the black Corvette that follows him blasting patriotic songs. The crowd response, dampened by rain, is tepid at best. Surrounded by volunteers in their T-shirts, Tancredo will sprint to a bystander whenever there's a hint of recognition.
"How's it going?" one man says, hugging him.
"You ever talk to a candidate that says things are going bad?"
"Well," the man replies, "my son and I thank you for speaking your mind and for your courage."
When a few Mike Huckabee supporters call him over, they chide him for liking Mexican food.
"You ever check the kitchen?" one says.
"If I did," Tancredo replies, "I'd never get served."
Returning to the group, Tancredo, who's been away from his Colorado home for nearly a month and misses his wife, says, "Boy, we've been looking for some good Mexican food down here, I'll tell ya." As it happens, he's fond of anecdotes about his grandfather being an immigrant from Italy.
The following day Tancredo sits down in the town square in Oskaloosa to smoke a cheap cigar he'd picked up at a Walgreens "somewhere in Iowa." He's just come from a town hall where he addressed roughly 45 people, and where Ray Batchelder, an 81-year-old retired farmer said: "This man here speaks my language. I'm a Democrat, but this man makes a lot of sense. This is the right solution for this border problem: Shoot the first five and the next 1,000 won't come. But that goes against my teachings as a Christian."
When asked about running solely on the immigration issue, Tancredo replies, "First of all, it's not an issue, it's a phenomenon. Second, at least I have one. You know, I have something people can gravitate towards, can see. I think when you try and be a Renaissance man it doesn't work, especially when there's this underlying current of feeling about this out there."
Looking out at the small stores in this small town, Tancredo says, "Sure, there's that nostalgic part of me that idealizes an America that probably never existed. But, an America more homogeneous, yes. It is not a white America, which is something I've heard people attacking me for all the time. We've always been a nation made up of so many different people, but it seemed to me there was more of an attempt to assimilate. So yeah, I long for that. Can we put this genie back in the bottle? I don't know. I have to try."
* * *
As much as he is a passionate gadfly, Tancredo knows his limits. Today's straw poll will answer whether or not a single issue, particularly this issue, is strong enough to push a man onward to something besides a punch line. He's conceded the victory to Romney, who has devoted significant resources to winning the Ames poll.
"If we can't show up in the top half of the crowd, even if we want to go forward it will be very, very difficult," he acknowledges, putting down his cigar. "The financial support will be tough and if you're not personally wealthy, how do you do this? It's more of a practical reality. I have to do well enough so I can keep the oar in the water, otherwise the boat comes to a stop."
At least for the remaining hours before the straw poll, Tancredo, pushed by Buchanan, seems unwilling to pull back the oar, to let others pass him by. That evening in the immaculate town of Pella, which owes most of its architecture to its Dutch beginnings, including a 134-foot windmill and working drawbridge, Tancredo arrives in the back room of a Pizza Ranch. Both Tancredo and Buchanan greet the 100 or so people.
In the corner, holding her 7-week-old grandson Maddox, Evie Jones echoes Tancredo's sentiments.
"I'm in health care," says the 55-year-old respiratory therapist, "and I see insurance costs rising. And from what I hear it's the costs of illegals. They're a burden."
Waiting in line for pizza, Vicki LeMay, a school psychologist, says: "It makes no sense we're sending people across the ocean when our borders are so open. If they're here legally, that's one thing. But they haven't gone through the proper channels. And it's a lie to say we don't have enough workers."
Tancredo offers up the anecdotes about the socks and the poultry plant in Georgia that did just fine after its illegal workers were hauled off. He tries to align his sentiments with the anger in the room.
He says that anti-American sentiments expressed in a mosque or street corner should be treated as acts of sedition. For the moment he's able to bundle the complaints about security and jobs, about schooling and amnesty. He seems to tap into the anger these people, these Americans, have.
"I wonder how many people today appreciate what citizenship is all about," Tancredo says, "whether the term even means anything anymore. Because we're willing to give it away. We're willing to let people have all of the benefits of citizenship even if they broke into this country."
"This is our home," he goes on to say. "But what happens when you come home and the house is full of people you don't even know? Is there nothing strange about this? Shouldn't I feel a little bit upset about this? This is my home, my country. Why should I be made to feel guilty about being upset when people come into it without our permission?"