IOWA CITY, Iowa — Even in this brave new era of digital politicking — with Twitter debates and Facebook e-vites to rallies and fundraisers — politicians can’t ignore the time-worn traditions of the hand shake and photo ops with supporters.
Particularly here in Iowa, where the early caucuses themselves are a political tradition that the national parties for some reason continue to honor.
This early showcase means almost non-stop barnstorming for presidential hopefuls eager to make a strong first impression on the voters in the rest of the country. Handicapping the early going here and in New Hampshire has become a cottage industry for pundits and political reporters, even though most of the country is far more interested in the heat wave or Casey Anthony than movement in the polls of likely voters.
But they’re paying attention in the Hawkeye State, as I found out learlier this month at the Iowa City Book Festival. Along with prose and poetry, they were talking politics, and how Congresswoman Michele Bachman baffled some folks when she came to town earlier this month.
Candidates typically follow the script pretty closely here, shaking hands at Luciano’s restaurant and wine bar in Sioux City, and wandering through the cattle barn at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
Here in Iowa City, the requisite stop is the Hamburg Inn, on Linn Street, a few blocks from downtown.
Ronald Reagan started the tradition, and there’s a marker on the corner booth where he ate apple pie and meatloaf — in that order.
There’s a Bill Clinton booth, too, and over the years dozens of candidates from both parties have stopped there to eat and schmooze, and there are pictures on the walls to prove it. They even have a coffee bean caucus, where customers can put a bean in the jar of their favorite candidate.
So imagine the surprise when, the weekend after she made the big presidential announcement in her hometown of Waterloo, Bachmann stopped for breakfast in Iowa City, not at the Hamburg Inn, but around the corner at the Bluebird Diner.
The Hamburg is sort of like a cozy tavern in Walker, Minn., where you get hash browns and French toast along with your fried eggs or a tuna melt for lunch. Well-used plastic ketchup bottles and big sugar shakers sit on the table next to the wood-paneled walls.
The Bluebird is more like a retro diner in south Minneapolis. The cole slaw comes on top of the pulled pork sandwich. They make a point of highlighting their “local partners” who supply the grain-fed beef and fresh eggs.
The Bachmann campaign has not yet responded to questions about why she stopped there with her husband and daughter for a Saturday breakfast of strawberry waffles, forgoing the omelets and sausage special at the Hamburg.
“We heard that she thought we are a Democratic place,” said Nathan Kull, a server at the Hamburg. “But everyone comes here. It was really weird.”
At the Bluebird, waitress Susanna Rodriguez agreed: “They usually stop at the Hamburg and shake hands. I thought it was strange, but it was probably good publicity for us.”
It did get them some air time on CNN and a few mentions in the national press.
The Bluebird staff said the Bachmann people called early in the week to arrange the Saturday morning event. Bachmann arrived in town the night before in a big bus and stayed at the Sheraton. There wasn’t lots of publicity about the stop, but local supporters got the word and started showing up around 7 a.m.
The problem for the staff: They didn’t order much.
“There were more people sitting around looking, just curious, than there were people eating,” said Katie Chrisman, a waitress on duty that day.
The candidate arrived at 8:34 a.m., and wandered the booth and then ate in an end booth, chatting awhile with Bluebird Diner co-owner Thomas Connolly, his two sons Augustine and Cash, and his sister, Erin Connolly.
Some of the Saturday morning regulars who did manage to get inside weren’t happy with all the fuss. It is, after all, a fairly liberal university town, and the Bluebird’s normal flock seems to skew, well, blue.
“As Michele was leaving, she walked around shaking hands with everyone, and one of my regular customers said, ‘Why did she try to shake my hand? Why did you have her here?’ ” Rodriguez said.
“And we didn’t make as much money as a usual Saturday,” she said.
That being said, the Bachmanns did tip 100 percent of their bill, the servers said.
Apparent snub draws comments
The apparent snub of the Hamburg did get some press in the area, and Paul Deaton in Blog for Iowa noted that “the liberal twitterverse was abuzz with statements about how she disrespected the Hamburg Inn, and about boycotting the Bluebird Diner if the owners support Bachmann.”
In reality, Deaton notes: “The significance of this campaign stop was that Bachmann demonstrated that she is her own person and playing by her rules. That will gain her points with Republicans. Her campaign is smarter than we give them credit.”
And noticed blogger Karen Fesler: “She worked the room masterfully, talking to everyone there, autographing whatever was presented and had a picture taken with everyone who asked. She was particularly attentive to the children and young people in the room. and even posed with the wait staff at the Bluebird for a picture.”
So, is this the beginning of a new tradition in Iowa City?
Probably not. The Bluebird — more accustomed to raves for its Fabulous Fish Taco Fiesta and donating proceeds from Tuesday nights to Habitat for Humanity — doesn’t plan to memorialize the booth Bachmann used, nor is it likely to start filling the walls with pictures and buttons and press clippings of candidates who visit.
“We’re more likely to make a wall honoring candidates who haven’t been here,” said waitress Brittany Walls.