The Democratic presidential candidates aren't the only ones caught up in a grueling campaign schedule right now. USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro has spent nearly two years traveling from town to town and state to state, observing a constant round of town meetings, hotel speeches, state fairs and barbecues.
"You are sitting in the front seat of a car, hoping the heater works, glancing down at printed-out directions you've taken from a computer, checking schedules, checking your watch, talking desperately on the cell phone, both getting caught up in the exhilaration of doing this and wondering, is this really a life for a grown up?"
Walter Shapiro writes about his experience in a new book called One-Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In.
Reporters are scrambling to write stories about Massachusetts Senator John Kerry since his surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. But it won't be nearly as easy to get the kind of access Walter Shapiro got in August 2002, when he and the senator took a plane ride together with Mr. Kerry in the pilot's seat.
"It's a totally sparkling day as we're flying from Boston to Keene, New Hampshire," recalled Mr. Shapiro. "And as John Kerry begins the slow turn to the Keene airport, the cell phone in John Kerry's pocket goes off. And I'm thinking, 'In New York state where I live, it's against the law to talk on a cell phone and drive a car. And he's about to land a plane.' And he did open up the cell phone and hand it to the co-pilot before he made the perfect landing. But the point here was that John Kerry's mother had entered the hospital just that day for what Kerry knew was to be the final illness, and that cell phone was an umbilical cord, if you will, linking John Kerry to his mother's bedside."
That experience gave Walter Shapiro a telling glimpse into how Presidential candidates balance personal worries with the never-ending demands of the campaign trail. It's those kinds of revelations that make the early stages of a campaign his favorite part of the race for the U.S. Presidency. "I was with Howard Dean a couple of days before the Iowa caucuses, and Howard Dean had two full press buses, maybe 70 to 100 reporters traveling with him," he says. "When I started my book, the opening scene is myself, Howard Dean and a lone aide in a Vermont state car going to the neighboring state of New Hampshire in September of 2002. There was a sense that all of these candidates are accessible if you're out there early."
In One-Car Caravan, Walter Shapiro tracks campaigns that would eventually sputter to an early end, like that of Florida Senator Bob Graham. Others, like that of Howard Dean, gained momentum in ways no one expected. "In September 2002, I am there as his lone aide hands Howard Dean the first photostat of the first brochure of campaign 2004. And Dean turns to his aide and says, 'Kate, did you get a price on this?' And you really got the feeling that if Kate had said, 'Yes, Governor, it's going to be $6,000, not $4,000,' the entire soap bubble enterprise that was the Dean campaign in those days would just totally collapse. And even though Howard Dean had a rough time in Iowa, he has gone from that moment to being the best-funded Presidential candidate in the history of the Democratic party," he said.
Howard Dean voiced his own brand of self assurance even after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses. "All I can do is fight. That's all I know how to do, is stand up for what I believe in. And what I believe in is ordinary Americans having control of their government again," he said.
Walter Shapiro also watched the candidates assemble staffs, raise funds, and, in some cases, struggle with the most fundamental question of all, whether they really wanted to run for President. That was especially true of John Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina. "I managed to follow the entire deliberation in November and December of 2002 as John Edwards wrestled with the question of, 'Do I give up my Senate seat from North Carolina to run for President?' I think for all these candidates in deciding to run, one should never underestimate egoism and ambition. But in the case of Mr. Edwards, there was an underlying idealism as well. He really believed that it would be unpatriotic not to run," he says.
"In the America you and I will build together, we will say no to kids going to bed hungry, no to kids who don't have the clothes to keep them warm, and no, forever, to any American working full time and living in poverty. Not in our America, not in our America, said Mr. Edwards.
After finishing a strong second in the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards has moved on to New Hampshire, where he and other Democratic candidates are waiting for the results of the upcoming primary. Whatever the outcome, Walter Shapiro says the New Hampshire primary marks a turning point. "From here on in we're going to be on charter flights. We're going to be crossing the nation with whoever the surviving candidates are. One will never be more than five miles away from a major airport, and individual interactions between the candidates and the voters become phony. They are only for the TV cameras. But what is so wonderful is that this is the moment when the 1,000 people who come out to see a Howard Dean or a John Kerry matter," he says.
But just how much do they really matter? In his book, Walter Shapiro raises the question of whether it makes sense to focus so much attention on two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, with so little ethnic diversity that they don't really represent the rest of America. Mr. Shapiro says his ideal presidential campaign would move at a slower pace and involve more primaries that carry the same kind of weight in other small states with more diverse populations. That would give reporters a better chance to size up the candidates and a wider range of voters the opportunity to decide who they want to run for President of the United States.
One-Car Caravan is published by
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