CHARLOTTE — Far away from the gleaming downtown arena where Democrats are staging their national convention, under a steamy tent in the parking lot of a suburban hotel, over plates of buttery biscuits and crispy bacon, there’s a whole other kind of sales job going on.
Each morning, the 63 delegates from Iowa have been playing host to a rotating cast of possible presidential hopefuls — the Bookers, Warners, Schweitzers and other Democrats who are trying to forge early ties to the activists who, four years from now, could help propel one of them to the White House.
“I can see Iowa from my porch!” Sen. Amy Klobuchar quipped as she began her speech Wednesday. With that not-so-subtle dig at former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Klobuchar had the Iowa delegation in stitches, perfectly prepped for the I’m-just-like-you pitch.
“You have Albert, the world’s largest bull; we have the world’s largest ball of twine,” said the senator from neighboring Minnesota. “You carve cows out of butter; we carve princesses. . . . You have the matchstick museum, world famous; we have the world-famous Spam Museum. You are the state that makes or breaks presidents; and, to invoke the names of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, we are the state that makes vice presidents that run for president.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley reminded Iowans that he lived in Davenport for two months and traveled the state — “all 99 counties,” he said, and surely not for the last time in the coming years — as a field staffer for Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign. O’Malley is slated to travel to Iowa next month to headline Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry fundraiser.
On Monday morning, Newark Mayor Cory Booker gave a stemwinder of a speech that brought tears to some eyes as he quoted Langston Hughes’s poetry and broke a little news.
Booker revealed that his 94-year-old grandmother was an Iowan — who knew? — born in Des Moines and later from Buxton, a mining town where many black families settled.
“This is the state that brought my family from deep poverty to the middle class,” Booker said, according to the Associated Press. “This is the state that will determine our destiny.”
Virginia Sen. Mark R. Warner and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also cycled through, while Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) were scheduled to address the group at Thursday’s breakfast outside the TownePlace Suites, where the Iowa delegation is staying.
“It’s stinking fantastic,” said Sue Dvorsky, the Iowa state party chairwoman. “I don’t know who’s going to run in 2016, but I know a whole handful of somebodies are going to, and I know they’ll have to come through here, so we’ll have to get to know them.”
Notably absent were a couple of the biggest names in the possible mix: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is traveling across Asia this week, and Vice President Biden.
Nevertheless, Dvorsky said she and other Iowans were particularly excited to hear from Booker after reading about his heroics in Newark, where he recently ran into a burning building to save a neighbor.
“We were all making jokes like, ‘Oh, I’m going to throw myself off the stage and see if he saves me,’ ” she said. “He bounds in — my God, he’s like 6-9 or whatever. This is a big, tall man with a big voice and a big personality, and it turns out his grandmother is from Iowa.”
That morning, it was hot and sweaty under the tent, she said, “but that’s not why people were wiping their eyes. He was a mesmerizing performer.”
Another standout was Klobuchar, whom Dvorsky described as “like our sister” because she has been making the rounds in Iowa. The senator talked about her grandfather, who never graduated high school, who worked 1,500 feet underground as a miner and who saved money in a coffee can to send her father to community college.
O’Malley, too, spoke of his family’s mining roots, saying his great-grandfather immigrated to Iowa from Ireland to create opportunity for his children and grandchildren.
Warner shared his story of entrepreneurial bust and then boom, telling Iowans that his first business venture failed and that after spending his mid-20s living out of his car and sleeping on friends’ couches, he became successful in the burgeoning telecommunications industry.
“I am the only politician you will ever hear who will say, ‘Please, even when I’m speaking, leave those cellphones on,’ ” joked Warner, delivering a variation of a line he’s been using back home in Virginia for years.
Iowa delegate Dan Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, one of the state’s largest unions, said, “Anybody who comes to this breakfast to speak has aspirations of being president.”
No, no, not at all, protested the would-be candidates.
“I’m thinking about reelecting Barack Obama president, and that’s all I’m focusing on,” O’Malley said.
Ditto Warner: “I’m not thinking about anything other than getting Barack Obama reelected and then dealing with this debt and deficit.”
So why come see the Iowa delegation? Why not South Dakota?
“Would you like to hear my whole debt-and-deficit presentation?” Warner responded.