DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) - Ah, Iowa. Where the grass is a green, the temperature is a balmy 72 degrees, and a triumphant Sen. John McCain stands before a Republican audience as his party’s standard-bearer.
Yes, the landscape of the Hawkeye State has changed considerably since the political world evacuated en masse late in the evening on January 3, headed to New Hampshire and beyond on chartered jets, steeling themselves for just a few more weeks of campaigning, thinking each party’s nominees would soon be determined.
On Thursday, four weary months later, the national reporters and TV crews assigned to McCain’s campaign returned to Des Moines for the first time since January to cover a town hall put on by the presumptive Republican nominee.
The scene offered a few muted flashbacks to those frigid weeks before the caucuses: the fleet of women wearing fire truck red “Divided We Fail” t-shirts, the elderly gentlemen sitting and clutching small American flags, even the slow-paced, meet-the-candidate format of the town hall itself.
The politician on stage chatted about ethanol subsidies and lauded the tenacity of Iowa farmers. CNN even spotted Tim Albrecht, Mitt Romney’s ubiquitous former Iowa communications director, milling around, lending a friendly helping hand to the event planners. This all seemed familiar.
But in other ways during this journalist homecoming, it was bizarro Iowa.
Who turned off the windy snow? Where was David Yepsen? And John Edwards? What about the satellite trucks lining the Des Moines streets?
Although the warm weather hinted at the Iowa of last summer, when sweaty press hordes descended on the Ames Straw Poll and the Iowa State Fair to sample politics, meat-on-sticks and dairy items, there were no butter sculptures in sight on this day. Iowa had become a doppelganger of its former self.
The most substantial change was in McCain himself, the candidate who essentially spurned Iowa in 2000 and 2008 for the cramped diners and chummy bus rides of New Hampshire.
But on Thursday in Iowa, as McCain meandered across the dais at the Polk County Convention Center, he was the man. McCain, once left for dead here, was now the pre-eminent Republican in America. Not Romney. Not Mike Huckabee. Not any of the Republicans who camped out here for months on end, hoping to an Iowa victory would slingshot them to the nomination.
McCain had not fully won over conservative Iowans on his way to the Republican nomination. But here he was again, beaming and ready for the general election, re-introducing himself to the good Midwestern folks who will vote, not caucus, in November. If he didn’t need Iowans in January, he will certainly need them in the fall.
“The political reality is Iowa will again be a battleground state,” he said at the conclusion of his remarks, after about an hour and a half of health care chatter. “I intend to spend a lot of time here. It’s a great privilege to be back in the heartland of America.”
Perhaps recalling up some Iowa memories of his own, McCain polished off his remarks with a cheeky nod to the state’s culinary rituals.
“I also look very much forward to going back to the Iowa State Fair and having a pork chop on a stick, followed by a deep fried Twinkie!” McCain cheered.
With that, the reporters were hustled away to their bus and to the airport, assured with this visit that they would probably return sooner than they think. The Hy-Vees will be waiting.
- CNN Political Producer Peter Hamby