As the Iowa Caucuses Near, This Guy Is A Hot Potato

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

CLINTON, Iowa -- It's not at all unusual for folks in this town to meet at least one of the presidential candidates. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Chris Dodd et al. have campaigned amid Clinton's 27,000 residents in recent months.

What's unusual -- okay, a little odd -- is for someone to have met almost all the candidates and taken photos of each one smiling with his Mr. Potato Head. That's right. Mr. Potato Head.

"The candidates have been in Iowa forever. Why not have fun with the whole process?" says Andy Green, a gimlet-eyed 20-year-old with a wide face and a perpetual smile, like he's been hiding a big joke he's just dying to tell. He's the kind of guy you'd imagine rushing up to Clinton, breathlessly saying: "You need to pose with Mr. Potato Head. You're the last Democrat to do this." She complied.

The story of the young man and his spudhead began in 2004, when Green inherited the toy from his dying grandfather. Grandpa Robert had kept the faux spud on his bedroom shelf, Green says, and treated it like nothing more than a decoration. Green, however, wanted to show the toy around. So wherever he went -- and Green's traveled quite a bit -- so went the spudhead. To the Statue of Liberty, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the Marine Corps War Memorial.

His parents and younger sister have a three-word explanation for this.

"That's just Andy," says his mom, Jenny Green, a secretary at Clinton Community College.

Naturally, when the candidates started holding events near the University of Northern Iowa, where Green is a sophomore, he jumped on the opportunity. And naturally, since campaigning in the caucuses means retail politicking at its most ardent and aggressive -- signing autographs, shaking every hand, posing for photos with a plastic spud -- only two candidates declined Green's request: Sam Brownback and Joe Biden.

"I'm not saying his refusal to take a photo with Mr. Potato Head doomed his campaign, Green says of Brownback, who has withdrawn from the race. "But I'm sure it didn't help that I was bad-mouthing him to a lot of people." As for Biden, Green says he'll never forget the senator's words to him: "He said, 'I don't take pictures with funny hats and funny toys.' Whatever."

There's a saying that Iowans won't caucus for candidates they haven't personally met. To hear Green talk about the candidates -- and, political junkie that is he is, he speaks of them endlessly -- is to listen to one young man's impressions of presidential hopefuls locked in the most competitive and open race in this state's caucus history.

"They've paid their dues. They've got the experience. I thought of my grandfather when I met them," he says of McCain and Dodd. Green's not entirely sure why Fred Thompson's running. "He just doesn't seem into it," he says. He thinks John Edwards is trying too hard. "Up there on the stage, where he was speaking, he was really good. Funny, too. But when you meet him one-on-one, he seems uncomfortable in his own skin," he says.

He reserves his most intense reactions for Obama and Clinton, both of whom he's seen face-to-face a few times.

Clinton, Green says, seemed "distant," "cold," "fake."

"Look at her photo with Mr. Potato Head. She's really smiling, but it looks like a really forced smile. It's only because I told her she's one of the last ones to have her photo taken."

Meanwhile, Obama, Green says, was "engaging," "open," "just like one of us."

"Look at his photo with Mr. Potato Head. He got into it. He's really having fun."

Green says that's not the only reason why he's caucusing for the Illinois senator -- Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war, Green says, is "really commendable" -- but his personality is a "big, big plus."

"When I met Hillary, I was scared. I was nervous about approaching her. I'd rather vote for Rudy Giuliani than vote for Hillary Clinton," Green says. "But when I approached Barack, I wasn't nervous. Not scared, either. I felt very comfortable with him."

Now that he's met all the presidential wannabes, he's going after the real deal. Today, former president Bill Clinton is scheduled to come to the city of Clinton, and Green will be there -- Mr. Potato Head in hand.

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