ABOARD THE ELECTION EXPRESS
Joe Raedle (Getty Images.)
MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa (CNN)– The echoes are still sounding, even though we’re on our way to the next city, and toward Election Day.
“Next Tuesday, voters will say no to the McCain-Palin campaign of fear and smear,” Tom Harkin, Democratic senator from Iowa, was saying to a cheering crowd in downtown Des Moines.
It wasn’t the fear-and-smear insult to John McCain and Sarah Palin that stood out; McCain and Palin were, somewhere in America, being just as insulting to Barack Obama and Joe Biden on this day.
No, what stood out was the “next Tuesday.” Suddenly, the candidates and those who speak on their behalf no longer have to say “in November” when referring to the election. Now it’s down to a single day of the week: Tuesday.
There were, in the Des Moines public park, those twin contemporary hallmarks of presidential campaign rallies: enormous American flags held temporarily aloft by the gigantic orange steel arms of SkyTrak forklifts, and armed men wearing black on surrounding rooftops. Patriotism and firepower, as omnipresent as confetti and brass bands once were.
And the helicopters. Always the security helicopters, buzzing over the crowd.
The word I O W A, just like that, in big, white, blocky welcome-to-the-state-fair style letters with spaces in between each one, greeted the arriving members of the audience, many of whom were walking up Locust Street on a warm and gorgeous autumn day. I had walked with some of them, crossing a bridge that spanned the Des Moines River, and that Bruce Springsteen song that has become as identified with Obama rallies as his campaign button or his photo on posters sounded over the loudspeaker system, indicating that he would soon be present.
All of this will be gone by this time next week; the cheering that has greeted the candidates for months will go silent, the yard signs will come down, one man will be triumphant and the other will be wounded in places no one can see. On this day in Des Moines, workers down at the Civic Center were putting into place the instruments and stage props for a touring Beatles tribute production that had come to town, but in the final week of the presidential campaign no one, not even second-carbon Beatles, can draw focus away from the two remaining men.
“It’s good to be back in Iowa,” Obama’s voice, as familiar now as any of those Beatle songs, boomed out from the same loudspeakers that had carried Tom Harkin’s voice. Even those in the crowd, estimated at 25,000, who could not see Obama felt that they were with him– the voice, in these months of campaigning, has become part of the air around us, as has the voice of John McCain.
McCain, somewhere right now, give or take a few minutes, was saying that it was good to be back in that somewhere, even as Obama, here, was saying:
“I don’t know if you saw me standing in the rain in 30-degree weather earlier this week. . . .”
What went without elaborating– what he, and his audience, accepted without really thinking about it– was that of course many of them had seen him at a rally in the rain. The television pictures of it had come into their homes, just as the television pictures from here, right this second, were coming into homes around the world. The satellite dish on top of this bus in which we are riding was delivering the pictures today; like an NFL or NBA team, presidential candidates, at least for a swiftly passing and inevitably finite interlude in their lives, know, every day when they go to work, that the work they do will be observed in real time by people they will never meet in cities they will never visit.
“. . . I’m still thawing out,” Obama said, to laughter.
If he was nervous in these final days, you couldn’t sense a sliver of it; he had not only been on time to his rally, but two minutes early– 11:28 arrival for an announced 11:30 event– and it was as if he was saying: I don’t need to let the anticipation build; I don’t need to wait for the crowd to grow. The tone of his voice, at the microphone, was like a man at a diner talking to someone on the next stool.
What none of us knows– none of us who have never been one of the two remaining candidates for president in the last week of a campaign– is what those two remaining men see and hear from the stages.
What those of us in the audience hear are echoes– two or three separate echoes of the candidate’s voice, bouncing off nearby buildings. Today Obama’s voice was bouncing off brick, and glass, and steel; it was bouncing off the exterior walls of the Des Moines Public Library, that voice telling the crowd, once, twice, three times, all of the voices overlapping:
“I am going to stop. . .insurance companies. . .from discriminating. . .against those who are sick. . . .”
Was he, on the stage, hearing his voice bounce back three times? Was John McCain, somewhere on the continent, hearing the echoes of his own voice? And when, next week, the echoes stop for one of them, will he– the one who no longer hears the cheers– feel the void?
“. . .to win on November 4,” Obama’s voice said, once, twice, three times, and he had momentarily forgotten:
He no longer has to say November 4. All he, and his opponent, have to say now is:
He finished, and “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” came onto the loudspeakers, and then, as always, the song that he, and McCain, and George W. Bush before them, have long featured at their rallies, Brooks & Dunn singing “Only in America”:
“. . .we all get a chance,
everybody gets to dance. . . .”
Only in America, indeed. Later in the day, as the sun was getting ready to set, I walked back to the park.
The candidate was gone. The music was missing. The men on the rooftops, the orange forklifts that had flown the flags, the helicopters above, had all disappeared. Somewhere in America, undoubtedly, they were about to materialize again, for Obama, for McCain.
As they will until Tuesday, when the cheering, for one of the men, dies. We, too, are on our way to the next city now; Des Moines was yesterday. Tuesday is up ahead, growing bigger in the windshield.
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