By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If he weren't so busy waiting tables at O'Charley's or scanning Wal-Mart for discount meat to feed his four kids, Scott Winschief thinks he might make a pretty good candidate for president of the United States. For the past six months, he has watched on television in his double-wide mobile home as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have traveled around the country and imitated his lifestyle. Badly.
They posed for photos in the same kind of factory where Winschief, 44, pinched a nerve in his back hauling 1,800-pound coils of wire in 140-degree heat. They visited bars and drained pints of the domestic beer that fills Winschief's fridge. They toured barns occupied by animals like the ones he fed at 4 a.m. every day so he could pay for a few years of college. They reminisced about shooting guns like the ones displayed inside almost every house in his rural neighborhood.
The presidential race has turned into a riveting competition for ordinariness, as both campaigns have concluded that whoever does a better job of winning over voters like Winschief -- an average blue-collar man in an average American town of 60,000 -- is more likely to triumph in Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
Identifying with the common man has been a requisite in presidential elections for almost two centuries. But the stakes are especially high in a race largely defined by an economic crisis, and campaign experts say the candidates have gone especially far in their appeals.
In the past six weeks, Clinton hammered down a shot of Crown Royal whiskey -- not necessarily the first choice of the workingman -- and chased it with a beer. Obama visited a Pennsylvania sports bar and sampled a Yuengling after making sure it wasn't "some designer beer." Clinton told stories about learning to shoot behind the cottage her grandfather built. Obama went bowling.
Whether these voyeurs of blue-collar existence yield results depends on how people like Winschief perceive them. Are these genuine attempts at connection or overly calculated tactics to win voters? Are they telling moments that reveal a candidate's humanity or patronizing charades that reveal a candidate's guile?
Last Tuesday night, Winschief cradled his custom-made bowling ball at Arrowhead Bowl in downtown Lafayette. It was league night, a staple of his schedule for the past decade, and he shuffled a deck of Hooters playing cards on the table in front of him and gulped Miller Lite from a plastic cup. One of Winschief's teammates mentioned Obama's recent misadventures at a bowling alley, where he rolled a succession of gutter balls (with the help of a couple of young children who rolled a couple of frames) en route to a score of 37. The friend wondered whether there was an adult in Lafayette who couldn't beat Obama's abysmal total.
Winschief, an undecided Democrat, pondered this for a second as he glanced up at his own score -- 164 with three of 10 frames left to bowl.
"I love him for trying, but that's awful," he said. "A 37? It kind of makes you wonder why he's even bowling in the first place."
Presidential candidates have strived relentlessly downward in social class ever since the 1840s, when William Henry Harrison created what historians now call the "common-man myth." While most of his peers campaigned from their estates, Harrison traveled the country and spoke under a banner depicting a log cabin and a bottle of hard cider. He won the presidency by a landslide, and his campaign model became the new standard.
With few exemptions since, American voters have picked presidents who mimic the public's most ordinary habits -- men who regularly mention drinking, or NASCAR, or old-fashioned farm work. Ronald Reagan liked to be photographed chopping wood. George H.W. Bush spoke longingly about pork rinds. Bill Clinton stopped at McDonald's while on the campaign trial, even when it required a side trip. And George W. Bush is a champion brush-clearer.
Disruption to this role-playing occurs only when a politician makes a blunder so glaring that it reveals him to be a jester in costume. Gerald Ford bit into a tamale without husking it while campaigning on the Mexican border in 1976, and he extolled its deliciousness before realizing he had consumed the wrapper. John F. Kerry ordered a cheesesteak at Pat's in Philadelphia and asked for Swiss cheese, even though Pat's had specialized in subs with Cheez Whiz for 70 years.
In 1994, George W. Bush arranged for several media outlets to follow him on the first day of dove-hunting season. He fired his gun, killed a bird and looked like a real woodsman until officials identified his kill as a Texas songbird, a protected species easily distinguished from doves by experienced hunters. Bush paid a $130 fine.
"If you can look like the common man and make your opponent appear out of touch, you've pretty much won the election," said Richard Shenkman, a George Mason professor who has written several books about presidential campaigning. "The American people, given the choice between reality and the myth, almost always pick the myth. . . . We tell ourselves their average day is just like ours."
Last Tuesday morning, Winschief woke up at his home in the outskirts of Lafayette and took a shower using water from the well he had helped drill a decade earlier. His wife, a nurse who works the overnight shift at a hospital for an extra $2 per hour, wouldn't return home for 30 minutes. He hadn't seen her since Saturday.
A few minutes after she returned, Winschief would leave for his shift as a waiter at O'Charley's, a family restaurant in the parking lot of the Tippecanoe Mall. The other servers are mostly college women from nearby Purdue University, and Winschief sometimes feels awkward for being "as old as everybody's dad." But this job is better than working as the overnight manager at IHOP, where he considered $1 tips generous. It's also better than bending over to bake enamel onto wires for 70 hours each week at a Lafayette factory.
"All things considered," he said, "this is probably the best job I've ever had."
Except for one major drawback: The drive to O'Charley's is 22 miles, requiring a daily total of four gallons of gas, or $15, in Winschief's old truck. Already "in debt up to my eyeballs" after buying six acres of land in New Richmond for $15,000, he never considered moving closer to Lafayette, where property costs five times as much. Plus, he grew up on an Indiana farm and he wants his kids -- ages 17, 15 and 13-year-old twins -- to fish in their own pond and drive their four-wheelers in peace.
To save money for gas, Winschief started collecting scrap metal and discarded aluminum cans from the side of the road on the way to work. Just last week, he recycled a three-pound bag of beer cans and earned $21. His kids teased him for being "pathetic" -- until he used the money to put gas in their four-wheelers.
Tuesday's lunch shift at O'Charley's dragged by in a painful lull, and Winschief sat in a booth at 4 p.m. and counted his tips. He had made about $43, a break-even sum after the round-trip drive to work and bowling. A few years ago, he considered giving up bowling to save money before deciding he would rather go broke. He met his first wife and his current wife at bowling alleys, and he spends the week looking forward to his three hours at Arrowhead.
Winschief polished off a few drinks after work, changed into a Miller Lite T-shirt and drove to the bowling alley to meet his four teammates. If they out-bowled the team from Dilley Crane Service tonight, his team would win the league title and earn back $18 in fees. "High stakes," Winschief said. "I'm not sure if this is fun or making me nervous."
As they took turns bowling, the five men talked about politics. Cliff Albea, a dissatisfied former Republican who stamps logos on cigarette packs for a grocery distributor, thought he might vote for Clinton because he liked her conviction about high gas prices. John Gilmore, a recently retired mechanic, favored Obama because "I can't really bring myself to vote for a woman." Randy Garrett, a Republican who disposes waste for a medical company, felt lucky that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, could lie low while "the Democrats make fools of themselves."
Winschief decided he would probably vote for Obama, despite his unfortunate 37. "He might not be a natural bowler," Winschief said, "but at least the guy isn't afraid to see what we like and get to know us."
On a television mounted to the wall behind Winschief, the local news rolled clips from the presidential race. Clinton chatted with factory workers in Indiana. Obama sweated through his T-shirt during a pickup basketball game.
The two candidates spoke into cameras about high gas prices, and about how everybody is feeling squeezed right now. Then they were whisked off in motorcades, headed back to their private jets. They looked exhausted, like they couldn't wait for a break from Winschief's life.