How divided is the race for the Democratic presidential nomination? Even the Draft Hillary movements can't stand each other.
"We're avoiding him," says Adam Parkhomenko, the 18-year-old leader of VoteHillary.org in Arlington, talking about Bob Kunst, leader of Miami Beach-based HillaryNow.com.
"I'm avoiding him," says Kunst of Parkhomenko. "The kid is on a total ego trip."
Not true, says Parkhomenko. "We wouldn't be in this situation if the guy had just returned my e-mails. And when he finally did, all he wanted was for me to help him to sell bumper stickers."
"I'm way too busy for this nonsense," Kunst declares.
The timing of this spat could not be worse. It coincides with Hillary Rodham Clinton's much-hyped appearance at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner Saturday night. This is a momentous occasion for those who believe that the senator's presidential candidacy in 2004 is inevitable, like Santa Claus on Christmas, despite her numerous vows to the contrary.
The Iowa Democratic Party sold close to 8,000 tickets to this year's fundraiser, about 3,000 more than in previous years. The drawing card is obvious, and it's not the breaded chicken and stuffed tomatoes.
(Six actual presidential candidates are here, too, and some campaign officials worried that Clinton's presence would confine them to parenthetical attention.)
Saturday's dinner is also a chance for the Draft Hillary movements to coalesce. But there's little coalescing going on between Parkhomenko and Kunst. They are selling their respective Hillary buttons and bumper stickers outside Veterans Memorial Auditorium. They are separated by about 50 feet but don't speak to each other. Only about each other.
"He's an 18-year-old kid," says Kunst, who is 61. "I don't trust him."
"Yeah, whatever," Parkhomenko says.
Both have been barred from the auditorium by the state party because they are not official representatives of officially declared campaigns. Both agree that their feud is unfortunate. It began last summer when Kunst failed to return Parkhomenko's e-mails and intensified in late September when, by Parkhomenko's accounting, Kunst "totally blew me off" outside a presidential debate in New York. Parkhomenko became increasingly suspicious that Kunst "had his own agenda," and Kunst became increasingly angry when Parkhomenko started giving media interviews about drafting Hillary.
Parkhomenko fears his schism with Kunst will sully his positive pro-Hillary message. So last Thursday he proposed a truce on Kunst's voice mail. By Friday afternoon, he hadn't heard back. He called again and this time Kunst answered.
Kunst says he told him he had no time for him.
"He hung up on me," Parkhomenko says.
The Iowa Freeze
It's cold outside the J-J dinner but button sales are hot. Parkhomenko and Kunst are being mobbed by supporters of other candidates who want Hillary stuff.
"I just sold a few buttons to some Dean people," says Parkhomenko, a student at Northern Virginia Community College who is considering a career in politics. He looks every bit the fine young man: brushed-back brown hair, blue and gold tie, black overcoat and dress shoes. He will use the proceeds from his button and sticker sales to reimburse himself for his travel costs.
Button-buyer Matt Taylor of Iowa City rushes up to Parkhomenko and asks when Clinton will be entering the race.
"Well, you might not get an official announcement tonight," Parkhomenko cautions, then lays out his scenario -- inconclusive primaries, a deadlocked convention -- that would result in Clinton's coronation.
Here we come to the requisite part of the story where Clinton's press secretary denies yet again that the former first lady is running for president in 2004.
"Senator Clinton has said repeatedly that she will serve out her full six-year term," says the press secretary, Philippe Reines, sounding robotic. "She loves her job. And is working on being the best senator she can be for the people of New York."
But what about efforts to draft Senator Clinton into the presidential race?
"Senator Clinton finds it flattering, but this is not authorized by or affiliated with her. Senator Clinton has said repeatedly that she will serve out her full six-year term. She loves her job. And is working on being the best senator she can be for the people of New York."
Now that that's cleared up, Kunst is pitching his Hillary-in-2004 scenario to three women from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. One is supporting Dick Gephardt, another Dennis Kucinich and the third is undecided -- but all say they would support Clinton if she ran. As the women fantasize of a Hillary candidacy amid an ocean of signs for Kerry, Dean, Edwards et al., the scene offers a tidy embodiment of the Democrats' "Rock Star Gap" -- the one that yawns between the candidates who are running and the icon who is not.
At least not yet. "We need the strongest candidate to beat Bush," says Kunst, a tanned Floridian who is shivering under a black knit Jacques Cousteau hat studded with green, pink and yellow "HillaryNow.com" buttons. His vocation, he says, is "marketing, sales and promotions," but HillaryNow.com has essentially become his full-time job. He has visited 26 cities on Hillary Clinton's behalf and attended more than 600 events. He sleeps in his 1993 Buick Park Avenue and says he has been swarmed at gas stations by people who see his signs.
When speaking, Kunst is prone to remind people that he's "just a Florida guy who's out here freezing my rear end off for Hillary." His purple cell phone rings constantly, including now.
"Hello, Bob Kunst."
It's Bloomberg Radio in New York.
"Yeah, I'm a crazy Florida guy, freezing my rear end off out here for Hillary."
While he waits on hold, Kunst catalogues the other interviews he has done today: MSNBC, Kansas City Star, "some California paper."
"I did 13 interviews yesterday," he adds, including one with the Des Moines Register that resulted in a story that misspelled his name. This leaves him irate. And he's aggrieved to learn that the New York Daily News also botched his name ("Kuntz") on Saturday. Something else bothered him about the Des Moines Register story: It said "Knust" is leading a movement to "draft Clinton." While the description is technically accurate, he says, it undersells the breadth of his activity. Kunst is a longtime political gadfly, dating to the 1970s when he protested singer Anita Bryant's anti-gay initiative. He ran for governor of Florida last year, spurred by the "stolen" presidential election of 2000, and received 42,000 votes (less than 1 percent).
Kunst believes he's the rightful leader of the Hillary insurgency. Parkhomenko is a mere kid who has earned no stripes.
"I'm out here freezing my tuchis off and he's over there, doing whatever," Kunst says, pointing to Parkhomenko's general vicinity. He calls Parkhomenko "just a star-struck 18-year-old." They have nothing in common besides their love of Hillary, Kunst says.
And, one might suggest, their love of media attention. Parkhomenko's media regimen is as intense as Kunst's. Several reporters -- and voters -- simply assume that Kunst and Parkhomenko are working together. This annoys Parkhomenko, because he worries that Kunst's outspokenness could reflect badly on him, and Hillary.
Now Kunst is launching into a speech about Bush and the Saudis when his interview with Bloomberg radio begins:
"Yeah, I'm just a Florida guy freezing my rear end off out here," he says, by way of introduction.
Draft Hillary Land.
Playing No Favorites
The dinner starts at 6:30. Kunst remains outside, in a shouting match with anti-gay protesters.
Parkhomenko is standing nearby, next to a bank of satellite trucks. He says he sold all of his buttons -- for 50 cents each -- and made $200 or $300. He gives a Hillary 2004 button to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who almost puts it on his lapel before thinking better of it.
Inside, near the entrance, a man is selling 2003 Jefferson-Jackson Day buttons: tiny head shots of the nine candidates encircling one of Clinton that's twice as big. One Kerry supporter is wearing a homemade "Hillary Now!" button; a Dean staffer is wearing an "Irish for Hillary" sticker on his lapel; an uncommitted old lady is wearing a "Grandma's for Hillary" T-shirt.
Hillary Clinton walks on stage to big applause and a recording of U2's "Beautiful Day." She touts the candidates with fervor and diligence, even in backhanded ways. She disputes some pundits' view that "the field is weak" and that the candidates are "running against obscurity."
She avoids the appearance of playing favorites, introducing the candidates in words written by their campaigns. She reads from 5-by-7 index cards and does nothing to hint at spontaneity or easy rapport.
The concession stands become noticeably more crowded when the candidates are speaking than when Clinton is (not all tickets include dinner). When Clinton says the words "Fellow Democrats, I give you Congressman Dennis Kucinich," there appears to be a run on chicken strips, cheddar brats and Blue Bunny malts.
By the time the last candidate, Carol Moseley Braun, finishes, Parkhomenko is posing for photos with a Dean supporter who just loves Hillary -- and who seems to love Parkhomenko for loving Hillary.
Meantime, Kunst sneaks inside. He collapses against a wall -- under a "Healthcare Better Be a Priority" sign -- and is surrounded by his paraphernalia. He wears blue Florida Gators sweat pants, a turquoise Miami Dolphins sweat shirt and a pink HillaryNow.com button. His graying hair sticks straight up; his cheeks and eyeballs are a deep red.
"I am not well," he says. "My voice is gone, my foot is in pain, my ears are throbbing. This day about killed me."
One consolation: "My pockets are full of money," he says, $500 or $600 in button and sticker revenue. People leaving the auditorium approach him. Several help themselves to buttons and stickers. "Hey, those aren't free," Kunst yells after them.
Kunst has never met Hillary Rodham Clinton. Parkhomenko did once, when she was first lady, about nine years ago. He was in fourth grade.
"I got five feet away from her once at a Labor Day parade," Kunst says, and he once received "one of those nice standard form letters, thanking me for all my efforts."
He says he wants to have a "heart-to-heart" with Clinton one day, "when my network is completely in place." As Kunst says this, a large "John Edwards for President" sign tumbles off the wall and just misses his head.
People keep streaming by, buying stuff, yelling support. "Hey, I read about you in the paper," one man says.
"Yeah, but they spelled my name wrong," Kunst replies.
Outside, Parkhomenko is exhilarated. "I talked to Candy Crowley of CNN, and she's pretty awesome," he says. He walks inside for the first time all day. This, too, is awesome. He is saucer-eyed as John Edwards darts past to meet a screeching throng of supporters.
"Hey," Parkhomenko says, looking toward Edwards, "I'm in the background of one of his commercials."
He walks past where Kunst is slumped, and the two barely acknowledge each other, ensuring another day of discord in Draft Hillary Land.
But for the most part, the movement is aglow this weekend. Yesterday's Des Moines Register asserts Clinton's clear domination of the dinner. "Star of the Show," screams a big headline over her big picture.
"With Iowa, Hillary Takes Center Stage," says another, and another says, "Many Say Clinton Would Get Their Votes."
But this all pales next to the real triumph in yesterday's Des Moines Register: Bob Kunst's name is spelled correctly.