A bloodcurdling roar rises from the throng of women, as if they were a herd of elephants scenting Democratic lion in the bush, when one of their number stands to ask Senator John McCain, "When are you going to take the gloves off?" It's been a good town hall meeting for McCain, so once again this Rocky Mountain afternoon his timing is perfect. Pausing on the tiniest chuckle, he replies, "How about Tuesday night?" Then he launches into his usual answer to any question about the tenor of the presidential race, averring his respect for Senator Obama and for Senator Clinton (in case there are any Hillary supporters in the room). "Americans want a respectful campaign," McCain concludes, as he always does. Not only are the women having none of this niceness. As the day unfolds, they're not going to have to wait for the second presidential debate next Tuesday in Nashville. Within hours, Sarah Palin delivers blows to Joe Biden. At certain moments, she toys with her gloves; but she never takes them off.
Denver's McCain town hall meeting is a women-only event to which invitations have gone out to Hillary supporters and undecided voters. The women with whom I speak are already McCain's, however. A few have brought a wavering friend, a recalcitrant mother or daughter. Eager determination rules--to the extent that the overflowing crowd moves into the press compound, despite the best efforts of the Secret Service to contain the surge. Now we're all packed in. At least most women have chairs, unlike at the Emily's List event in the same Denver Sheraton Hotel just a month before during the Democratic Convention. The Democratic women had stood for several hours in a cavernous, gloomy basement ballroom at the Sheraton. The Republican women enjoy padded chairs in a well-lit ballroom upstairs. I'm not sure how to interpret the contrast, but one thing I do know: few, if any, of her Colorado supporters who came to the Emily's List tea in order to see Hillary Clinton are here again today for John McCain.
The significant contrast is with the Michelle Obama rally the day before at Farrand Field on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. While the students pressed against the fence at the back of the press area, the reserved space before the podium was full of older women and young mothers who arranged their strollers into a baby pen. They were mostly white, middle class and very well-educated. The women at the McCain town hall in Denver are also mostly white (this is Colorado, after all). But as a group they are less educated--fewer professors and more hairdressers--and represent a wider economic spectrum, from local socialites to security guards. This difference perfectly illustrates the polling data. What is new is the way opinion, now fixed, mirrors the opposition. Surveying fifty or so women at each event, I hear "the economy" and "the environment" (this is Colorado) as number-one election issues from each group.
In Denver, more than in Boulder--where the assumption seems to be that the choice of Obama is so obvious that it precludes explanation--the women characterize their choice of John McCain. Jo Ann says, "Obama is in it for himself. McCain is in it to try to help the country." Suzanne says that as a country "we have made a lot of bad choices," so now we need a leader to help us "start to believe again in ourselves." Suzanne goes on to say, "We need to change this environment of 'what's in it for me now.'" Of course, these two women could just as easily be talking about Senator Obama. They don't appreciate the irony because this close to the end of the race the two sides are entrenched, unable to see clearly the opposition.
Leaving the town hall meeting, which like the Boulder rally has its share of screaming infants, and which even for McCain is unusually sentimental (a woman gives McCain a ribbon that had belonged to? that she had made in honor of? her uncle, who had raised the flag on Iwo Jima), I finally find a Hillary supporter. There are always one or two at every McCain event. Here is Pat, taking a "Democrat for McCain" bumper sticker. She supported Senator Clinton until her campaign "did a few things I didn't like." But what she really wants to tell me is that she's always been a Democrat, even though she voted for Ike while her husband voted for Adlai. This is the second time recently that an older Coloradan has mentioned Adlai. At a business women's roundtable in Colorado Springs, hosted by Governors Ritter of Colorado and Sebelius of Kansas for Obama, Dottie Harmon, at one time the local president of the League of Women Voters and a Democrat, talked to me about her worries on the subject of Senator Obama's election. "Americans fear really intelligent men," Dottie said. "Remember what happened to Adlai Stevenson."
So I'm thinking about Ike and Adlai at the Biden-Palin debate watch party hosted by the Republican Women of Arapahoe County at a South Denver restaurant a few hours later. In that election, I was only a grade schooler, but my friends and I chanted "I Like Ike!" for a season. My parents and their friends, the parents of all my classmates, were for Eisenhower. Mine was an Eisenhower world, with one exception--a beloved teacher whose preference for Stevenson made her suddenly seem as strange and rare as a circus freak. This insularity has taken root again among Colorado Republicans. Here at the debate watch party the merry band can't conceive of a President Obama. That would be just too strange and rare, too absurd. These Republicans dismiss Obama and Biden both, out of hand. As the evening progresses, volunteers are enlisted, phone banking is set up, canvasses are briefly mentioned ("it's just hanging flyers on doorknobs," a county organizer says). The local Republicans are gearing up, doing what they've always done so successfully, but seemingly oblivious to the massive voter outreach the Obama Campaign has been waging all summer in Colorado.
As a writer for The Huffington Post, I have a precarious toe-hold on the rungs of my barstool among this large and raucous but wary crowd. Bo Cottrell, the husband of the evening's hostess, informs me that if I misrepresent those present, "I'll hunt you down wherever you are and kill you." He's smiling, so I don't take him too seriously and tell him to get in line behind more than a few Democrats. Republican antipathy to the press is visceral and hot; since I began interviewing McCain supporters in June, I've grown accustomed to it. This sense of betrayal, coupled with a belief that the fourth estate doesn't get them, colors these Denver Republicans' reactions to the televised debate.
Tonight, however, Sarah Palin gives them reason to hope. Earlier in the afternoon, interviewing McCain supporters at the Sheraton, I asked about Palin and heard some hesitation. "We'll see after the debate tonight," Paula said. "I think she [Palin] was intimidated by Katie Couric. She is better on the offense." After the debate, the enthusiasm is back. "She's terrific!" If I hear this once, I hear it a hundred times. "She represents the American woman--better than any Democratic candidate ever has." "She represents the American family." "She lives the life, she walks the walk." A few revelers are more specific. One gentleman (I couldn't catch his name above the din) says, "Her sister owns a gas station. So maybe she [Palin] understands what I'm going through." Bob, who is working for three of the down ballot candidates in Colorado and is philosophical about their chances, is nevertheless completely sold on Sarah Palin. "Take your favorite aunt, and your mother and your sisters--distill the best of them, and that's Sarah Palin."
The Denver Republicans boo Biden when he ties McCain to the "economic policy of the last eight years." They cheer Palin when she talks about the money worries parents share during their children's soccer games, when she says we have to take "personal responsibility" for getting ourselves in debt. Palin's defines patriotism--"government get out of the way"--to a lot of Arapahoe clapping. "Unless you're pleased with the way government has been running anything recently," Palin says, to hooting. I feel like I'm in a sports bar, watching the crowd tick off the score for the home team.
Does Joe Biden point to Exxon/Mobil as the bad guy one too many times? Does his proffer of Obama "giving an interview with The Wall Street Journal" as an example of Obama's mastery of the financial crisis fall flat? Is Biden a smidge sour? Is this sourness a sign of age--and more importantly, age versus youth? What goes around comes around. In this debate, youth versus age works to the Republicans' advantage. Palin is more can-do, more optimistic. She chides Biden for turning his talking points to the past, for "looking backwards and pointing fingers." Biden has those talking points, but he's like the boring speaker at a Chamber of Commerce dinner one must attend. He's a bit of a fear monger as well, on the economy, on China, on health care ("twenty million of you will be dropped"). Palin is ever so charming as she knocks Biden down. "Senator Biden, I respected you when you called him [Obama] out on that."
"Your wife being a teacher for thirty years," Palin says to Biden, "God bless her." Then Palin goes on, "I come from a house full of school teachers." She gives a shout-out to her brother's third graders before saying that "we need flexibility in No Child Left Behind." Finally, she manages to work in the fact that her children (and the attentive viewer will think of Obama's young children) attend public schools. This is the folksiness and downhome-heartedness that Palin's supporters love in her. If the Colorado Republicans at the Arapahoe party realize that this Sarah Palin is merely a political persona, they don't seem to care. They have been waiting too long for such a voice.
Earlier at the McCain town hall meeting, I spoke for awhile with Cindy, who at first, like the Arapahoe Republicans, was reluctant to talk. She had been burned by a local reporter who had written her up as a McCain supporter and called her a "starry-eyed fool." "I'm well-educated," Cindy said to me. "I've lived abroad, in several countries. I'm not a fool." She told me about growing up in South Dakota and beginning her political life as a McGovern volunteer. Still wary of me, and slightly accusing, she said, "Mainstreet America is grossly under-represented by the mainstream media. So this one voice doesn't have a voice. They [Mainstreet and MSM] don't think the same things. They have different values. Are we on Mainstreet losing our freedom of speech, our freedom of ideas?" I didn't have an answer for Cindy, but after months on the campaign trail, I know whereof she speaks. Likely most of the media will call the vice-presidential debate for Joe Biden. But Sarah Palin is that voice small town America has been yearning for, and her voice's reach, beyond the current election, has yet to be measured.