Political rallies are both exciting and draining to cover. Here is Mitt Romney at a "get out the vote" rally in Grand Rapids on Tuesday morning.
The week before a presidential primary week is kind of like March Madness for political junkies.
Republican presidential contenders and their friends pounced on Michigan this week, all attempting to show how much they know about Michigan and care about the things that Michiganders care about.
This lasts until the day of the election, and before the final ballot is counted they’re on their way to South Carolina to show how much they know about South Carolina and care about all things South Carolinans care about.
Democrats usually care, too, but not so much this year because their primary election didn’t count — it’s a long story — sending them right to South Carolina.
As you know, when I’m not obsessing over all things Mets I’m obsessing about presidents — from all parties.
They’re all fun. And they usually have cool things like buttons and stickers to collect. And leaves. Some people think it’s strange that I have a leaf from the White House on my desk. And they don’t even know about Mike Schmidt’s grass clippings. But that’s another story.
My bosses know about this obsession, probably because I start dropping subtle hints that I can help out with campaign coverage. Actually, I’m not very good at subtle. I go right to begging.
Happily, they assigned me to cover three Mitt Romney events on Wednesday and a dinner on Friday that included Romney, Duncan Hunter and Sen. Sam Brownback subbing for John McCain.
Then on Saturday I spent some time with Mike Huckabee, was supposed to check out the now-elusive John McCain on Monday — he changed his schedule to appear in Detroit — and finished with another Romney event on Tuesday morning.
Rallies are fun to cover regardless of which side of the aisle the candidate is from. There’s an electricity that’s kind of like seeing a concert of a band that’s peaking. And the closer to the election and larger the crowd, the greater the intensity.
Here’s how these appearances typically work.
Organizers post a time they want people to be there, knowing it’s a good half hour before anything is likely to happen. This is so the local staff and volunteers can pass out signs, stickers and other things to wave for the cameras.
All this is to create a visual image of excitement. None of this is left to chance. Most of the time even the signs that look homemade are made by volunteers and handed out, usually with a predetermined message of the day.
And the better-financed the campaign, the better the stuff. Romney got points for the coolest give-away, foam rubber baseball gloves with "Mitt ‘08" on it.
Now, as a baseball purist, I could point out that if they were going for the obvious baseball mitt connection, they should have used a catcher’s mitt or a first basemen’s mitt, both which are technically mittens because they don’t have individual finger slots. The rest are gloves.
The uninformed tend to call any leather thing on the hand of a ballplayer a mitt. I would dock points for getting that wrong, but was so happy to see any baseball-president merger that I overlooked the fault.
The candidate is usually late, because it’s easy to fall behind schedule when there is one more hand to shake and snapshot for which to pose.
In fact, the only time you know for sure that the politico has arrived is that the national media traveling with the campaign appears. They’re usually kind of tired and cranky because they’ve been on the road and have listened to the same speech over and over and are fed up with living out of a suitcase and eating fast food.
The candidate always — always — gives the national guys time to get set up because the campaign benefits by having them there to take photos of waving signs and foam rubber mitts.
After being introduced by local politicos, the candidate takes the stage, or in the case of Romney outside of a restaurant, stands on a chair, and recites lines they have honed to fit with local concerns.
People attending these are already excited and emotional, and a good speaker can grab them, taking them both high and low. Huckabee is a gifted speaker; he had people both cheering and in tears.
At some point there is a "media avail" where the candidate takes a moment to answer questions shouted by reporters.
Sometimes it’s tough to get your question heard. It’s a combination of volume and timing.
You either have to be loudest, or start yelling out your question a heartbeat before anybody else does. That means you have to guess when the candidate is wrapping up the answer to the previous question so you can beat everyone else, all of whom are trying to do the same thing.
Then, when the media avail is over, the local television guys try to throw one more question as the candidate is walking out. This is usually for appearances, because if a question happens and the station’s mic ID isn’t in the shot, it didn’t happen.
Sometimes this can be pretty funny. In 2000 I was covering an appearance by Gary Bauer, a conservative candidate hoping for the Republican nomination. He was a longshot candidate, but I was still excited because, as I said, I’m obsessive and it’s all good.
Someone from one of the television station didn’t do her homework. Usually I ask my questions when the TV types aren’t around because I do my own research and don’t want to give them good material. So I said nothing when one of the locals approached Bauer and asked some pretty general questions, like, "What would you do if you are elected?"
When she had enough questions on tape, she asked Bauer, "So, what are you running for again?" With as much disdain as he could muster, yet still be polite, Bauer said. "President. Of the United States."
Candidates' families usually are at these appearances, which I imagine are grueling for them after a while. Mrs. Huckabee was friendly and funny. She walked into room where the post-rally media avail was to be held, saw an open chair near where I was standing, and asked if it were sitting there.
"No, be my guest."
"No, no, that’s OK, You’re working and I’ll find a seat in the back," she said, then smiled. "Trust me, I’ve heard this before."
It’s fun to feed off the electricity of these events, but we don’t get swept up. Reporters look at these differently than most folks, looking for themes and messages. We think about what the candidate is saying and why he’s saying it — and if he is connecting with the people he wants to connect with.
Once all the people attending a rally have left, it’s OK to pick up a sticker for the collection. Huckabee’s campaign is famously on a shoe-string, so there were no stickers to be found.
But I did find the paper taped to the floor of the stage reading, "Mrs. Huckabee," where she was supposed to stand as the former governor spoke.
I suppose it’s better than the White House leaf.