My family and I have spent over a week in Iowa. We were expecting the normal cold, snowy weather, and bought boots, wool socks and sweaters the week before Christmas. We packed up soon after Christmas and flew to Des Moines. Four family members, 8 checked bags (double my initial goal -- bulky snow boots and sweaters).
We were there to join my father, Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich, and his wife Callista on the campaign trail. Also along were my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Paul. We have spent New Year's Eve together for decades, and this one would be no different.
Entering the downtown Marriott in Des Moines during caucus time is surreal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of camera equipment (carts of cameras, lights and other video equipment were in sight at almost all times), dozens of reporters -- local, national, and international -- hanging around the coffee shop or bar, depending on the time of day. Think of it as a Disney World for political junkies.
Candidates, buses, families and staff crisscrossing their way across the state, stopping in Pizza Ranches, school gyms and local coffee shops, shaking every hand they could reach. Press corps following in buses. Boom mikes and cameras constantly pressing forward. The media were often better represented/more numerous than the voters.
Iowa is a state where the voters like to meet the candidates, each and every one of them personally. Iowans take their role as the first people to cast votes seriously.
I've been through quite a few campaigns, but I've never been involved in a caucus. The experience was educational and interesting.
Very, very interesting.
In this most recent trip to Iowa, I visited several small cities. Two of the most memorable were Grinnell -- where we visited Candyland Station, an old-fashioned soda shop -- and Pella, a very quaint Dutch community where we made a fun stop at the Ulrich Meat Market. We were there to do local radio and was reminded of the mid and late 1970s, when I would travel with my dad through rural Georgia while he was campaigning for Congress.
The people of Iowa take their politics seriously. They show up at events, ask great questions and get involved.
The caucuses are run at a local level. There are 1,774 precincts in the 99 counties. This year, many of the voters -- 41 percent, according to the Des Moines Register poll released on New Year's Eve -- were undecided on whom to vote for in the caucuses. Everyone knew that anything could happen prior to caucus night.
Caucus day had the air of a grand opening (think of Super Bowl at kickoff time). The excitement was palpable. The activity ramped up. More interviews, more events, less time. Instead of voting throughout the day, as we do in my home state of Georgia, people go at an appointed time to a specific location, register and get a blank slip of paper. As it is a "caucus," voters sit and listen to all the candidates, or their representatives, for a few minutes before writing the name of the candidate that they want to support on the ballot and dropping it into a basket.
I was selected to speak for Dad at a caucus location just outside of Des Moines. As the crowd settled in, the first speaker was announced; Santorum himself was there to make his case. Two of his sons stood behind him.
Soon afterward came Kelley Paul, Sen. Rand Paul's wife, on behalf of her father-in-law, along with her young son Robert, who opened up the remarks for her. Eventually, it was my turn to speak.
As I stood up, I wondered: Where else but in Iowa could voters hear from a candidate, a candidate's daughter and a candidate's daughter-in-law minutes before they cast their votes?
With over $10 million of negative advertising spent in the last few weeks, almost half targeted at my father, it was not surprising that his finish was lower than the poll numbers earlier in the month. For a national comparison, the amount of money spent would equate, on a per-vote basis, to almost $5 billion in negative advertising.
But Dad, the son of a career infantry officer, knows that his duty is to his country, and he soldiers on.
The race will continue to evolve, and we will all soldier on; enjoying the journey and learning along the way.