The Donkey in the Room.

We sent Stry.us reporter Bari Bates to cover the Missouri GOP Convention, where more than 2,000 Republicans gathered to decide their party’s platform for the upcoming election -- one of the most heated in state history. This is what she saw and heard that weekend.

It would have to be Texas hair.

As soon as my editor assigned me to cover the 2012 Missouri Republican Convention in Springfield, I started to worry about my hair. The GOP is the party of many things, and big hair is one of them. When I think of Republicans on TV, I think of Texas-sized hair.

I don’t have Texas hair. I’m from the Chicago suburbs, and my hair, with its perpetual curl, has a certain bounce and width that you just don’t see south of the Mason-Dixon.

But I wanted to blend in — or rather, I didn’t want to stand out, as much as a reporter can among a party where “media” is just another word for mud — and I didn’t have many options. I don’t have an American flag hair clip. I don’t own a diamond-studded elephant brooch. My hair, barring generous amounts of Crisco, starch and a blowtorch, can’t go as straight as Coulter’s.

My only choice was to go big. I would have to blow out my hair to Texas-sized proportions, and hope that the Missouri heat would somehow deflate my naturally curly mane to a more manageable and regionally appropriate height; the difficult balance between southern why-bless-your-heart sympathies and gardens-and-guns Midwestern values.

But such was not the case.

It’s impossible to show up for an event like this without lugging a fair amount of GOP-related stereotypes in the door with me. They were on my mind, and I worried that by showing up with my “fair and balanced” [1] journalist hat on, I was going to immediately draw the ire of thousands of Missouri GOP voters — Texas hair or no Texas hair.

But all I had do, my editors told me, was listen. Ask convention-goers what was on their minds, and listen.

And then 20 minutes into the convention, I was called a socialist.

This changed things.

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Day 1.

The grass is barely visible beneath the sea of yard signs outside downtown’s University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. All of the races are represented here, but the candidates for the U.S. Senate election are given extra attention.

This was supposed to be Jim Talent’s election — again. From 2002 to 2006, he served as a Senator for the state of Missouri, but he lost re-election in 2006 to Claire McCaskill, then the state’s Auditor. Most conservatives expected Talent to come back for one more bid, but in 2011, he decided not to run.

Talent’s departure left Missouri Republicans with three possible candidates: John Brunner, Sarah Steelman and Todd Akin. It’s their names now staked into the grass in front of the convention center, rows upon rows imploring visiting Republicans that each one — be it John or Sarah or Todd — is the candidate strong enough to knock McCaskill from office. [2] For the three front-runners, it’s been a long road already, as one prospect after another has taken their spot in the ring. [3] Time and time again, these candidates have come forward to pitch their fellow Republicans on a simple message: This election is for the future of the America.

Some, like Steelman, have put it in reasonable terms. At a debate a week earlier in nearby Willard, Mo., Steelman opened her remarks by saying, “I’m Sarah Steelman, and I’m from Rolla, Mo., and I’m running for United States Senate because I’m worried about our country and the direction that it’s headed.”

Akin offered no such niceties. Asked to give an opening statement, he told the sparse crowd at Willard High, “Good evening, I’m U.S. Congressman Todd Akin, and I’m on the Budget Committee, and when I take a look at the numbers I am one more time convinced that freedom in America is under an attack unlike anything that any of us have ever seen in our generation.”

Akin’s view isn’t necessarily shared by most Republicans, but it is representative of a larger, party-wide dissatisfaction with the current administration. Barack Obama is wildly unpopular here at the convention. Republicans don’t like his views — his recent support of marriage for same-sex couples is chief in the minds of voters — and they especially hate his policies. None is more controversial than the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the law Republicans have taken to calling “Obamacare.”

All I had do, my editors told me, was listen. Ask convention-goers what was on their minds, and listen. And then 20 minutes into the convention, I was called a socialist.

Next on the minds of GOP voters is Claire McCaskill, the incumbent senator from Missouri. She won election in 2006, when Democrats took six seats and regained control of the U.S. Senate. Despite the unpopularity of President George W. Bush — and dissatisfaction from voters about the state of the country and two wars abroad — McCaskill’s ’06 race against Jim Talent was as close as any across the country.

The reason? The money. National GOP officials feared losing the Senate, and they — correctly — saw the Missouri election as the deciding race. Republicans put $23.8 million into Talent’s war chest. McCaskill raised only $11.4 million.

Still, it wasn’t enough. McCaskill won where it mattered — at the voting booth, by less than 50,000 votes, out of 2.1 million ballots cast.

McCaskill’s popularity has waned since, especially as Congress’ approval ratings slide. Republicans are still fuming that McCaskill cast a deciding vote in support of the President’s health care plan.

With re-election coming this fall, McCaskill knows how important fundraising will be, and she’s out to a big lead over all three of her primary Republican challengers.

  • McCaskill has raised $9.6 million for 2012, $2.1 million alone coming from PAC contributions.
  • Brunner, the St. Louis businessman, has raised $2.6 million, all but $397,134 of which has come from his own bank account.
  • Akin, the current U.S. Congressman from Missouri’s second district, has $1.9 million, including $325,891 in PAC contributions.
  • Steelman, the former state treasurer, has raised only $1.4 million, which includes $400,000 of her own money.

McCaskill’s three competitors are all here in Springfield for the weekend to make their case to the voters. That’s not the only thing on the minds of those at the convention. The state convention also serves to nominate and elect national delegates, a national committeeman and committeewoman, and oh, you know, just a political platform that all Missouri Republicans can agree upon.

Because getting 2,000 people to agree to a set of oddly specific ideas is a super easy thing, right? Right.

This is what I’m walking into.

¶ ¶ ¶

Delegates and alternates gather in the Kansas room to hear about the GOP's phone bank and social media strategy.
(At top) Sarah Steelman on stage at Willard High School after the GOP debate. (Above) Delegates and alternates gather in the Kansas room to hear about the GOP’s phone bank and social media strategy.

¶ ¶ ¶

There’s a throng of T-shirt clad volunteers clogging every inch of the sidewalk in front of the convention center, and I push [4] through them. It’s Friday, the first of two days of this convention. Inside, there are three lines of people waiting to sign in, with blue-haired ladies sporting a range of elephant attire, knit sweaters dotted with sequins and lined with stripes. The red, white and blue is tough to miss.

In the line to my right, a woman is inspecting the sleeve of a stack of books available for sale [5] from David Limbaugh, conservative author and younger brother to Rush. President Obama’s portrait adorns the book jacket [6], and there is a woman at the table tapping his face with her nail, discussing the President’s unpopularity among the Springfield crowd.

It’s strange how someone as far removed from the convention as President Obama can hold the fierce attention of this crowd. He’s the doomsday figure here, the unspoken force in the room. This weekend, he will be associated with tyrants, dictators and — worst of all — Claire McCaskill.

Local TV ads are selling viewers on the idea that McCaskill is nothing but a clone of Obama, which of course is a scary notion, if nothing else for the fact that clones are far scarier than whatever the original is. Dolly the sheep, for example. [7]

Obama and McCaskill are the villains of the weekend, the ever-present elephants in the room — if elephants were donkeys.

They are the ones at the center of this, the ones who receive the blows of violent rhetoric. And that rhetoric has only escalated as November draws nearer.

It’s not a matter of receiving more votes anymore — it’s a battle over the fabric of America; it’s not about winning an election — it’s about winning the war being waged on freedom. Violence begets violence, and the more gruesome the verbiage, the more fervent the crowd becomes.

But for a fervent crowd, the conservatives here today seem mostly calm, shaking hands with old friends, saying hello to new faces. No one seems much interested in me, or my GOP-approved press pass, which is large enough to conceal my entire face. I make my way over to one of the very American-sounding ballrooms — all named after states.

I’m late, arriving well into the presentation at hand. Today’s afternoon session is on grassroots campaigning, the first of identical back-to-back sessions. The PowerPoint projected at the front of the room shows a lone word, “Questions?” perhaps asked with a gentle tilt of the head. White plain type, on a dark blue background.

The woman at the front of the room, leading the training session, is poised, perfectly blonde, articulate, and gives the exact responses she’s supposed to give as a political type. No shocking answers, no sudden admissions of praise or scolding words. Her every answer is measured and precise, even when she finds herself on the business end of a scolding by the elderly members of the audience. The audience is, on the whole, old, and is worried about the GOP’s inability to reach out to the young voters whose minds are being “indoctrinated” by the liberal agenda of the public school system.

The session leader hints that the Republican party has something up its sleeve. “You’re gonna see something like never before in terms of social media, even more than Obama tried in ’08!” she promises, referencing the fact that the Obama campaign capitalized on social media in 2008 in a way that McCain just couldn’t. But it’s not enough for this crowd.

“We have five months before the election. It’s getting pretty late…” one man shouts from his seat. “Someone screwed up, you’re behind the curve. This is a whole lot of verbiage… this should have been done years ago!” Others chime in, nodding in agreement and turning to the front of the room, expecting answers.

“The average age of staffers is 27,” the session leader insists. That they are young, hip and “with it” is implied. They can knock on doors just as well as they can craft tweets, she tries to explain.

This is still not good enough for the crowd. More concerns chime in, in an orderly and polite, raising-your-hand sort of way.

“That’s where it should begin, with the minds of the next generation!” calls out one. “That’s why 66 percent of young people are registered Democrats, they don’t hear the other side!”

This segues into a longer conversation about indoctrination, a word I’ll hear a few times this weekend. The crowd’s stance seems to be this: Parents need to teach their children about politics from a young age so that when those children go to school, they won’t be swayed by the liberal beliefs and teachings of their educators.

It was about this point that my mind began to wander — my own apparently liberal indoctrination at public school had been a fairly pleasant experience — and I begin to count people in the room. There are about 140 people here, but I can count the number of minorities on one hand. Well, from what I can tell, I could count them on three fingers.

Missouri is a diverse state, and the GOP boasts wide support from minorities nationwide, but here in this room, the Grand Old Party has taken on a decidedly monochromatic feel.

Combine that with the age factor in the room, and you can understand why the Republicans here are so uneasy. Because when I think of the GOP’s youth — all the organizations of younger folks with Republican sympathies… well, I don’t think of any, actually. Maybe that’s just the indoctrination talking, but it’s difficult to look around the presentation and not think about all the people who’ve gotten an AARP discount on their hotel room for the weekend.

¶ ¶ ¶

A delegate at the state convention shows off her allegiance.
A delegate at the state convention shows off her allegiance.

¶ ¶ ¶

It is somewhere thereabouts that the first session ends, and my mind stops its wandering. I make my way into the crowded halls outside the ballroom. Free T-shirts from the Romney campaign, more flyers, more pamphlets — information for me, just in case I want it. I flash my press pass, only to be met with raised eyebrows and the phrase, “Oh come on, you know you want it.”

Several times this happens. Persistent little chaps, they are.

I decide to hide behind stand next to a ficus and observe the crowd from a distance. I’m offered bumper stickers that replace the “O” in Obama with the communist hammer and sickle, and politely decline. As the crowd thins, a man in a tan tweed suit stands staring at me.

“I’m just trying to figure out where you’re from,” he says, walking toward me and squinting at the billboard of a press pass around my neck.

I tell him that I’m with a new news organization in town. I ask about his day, about how the convention is going for him so far.

He introduces himself, but slows me down. He wants to talk a little before the political questions start [8], inching just a little bit closer to me.

He asks where I went to school. Mizzou, I answer, with a tinge of pride.

He shudders and shakes his head, tsk-ing loudly. Springfield’s home to alums from schools across the South and Midwest, and many of them aren’t fans of the Show-Me-State’s flagship university. I’d obviously disclosed my university affiliation to a Jayhawk or a Sooner or a Razorback. I ask for clarification on the head-shaking.

“Bunch of socialists up there. Too liberal. Mmmhmmmm, nuh-huh.” More shuddering, attracting the attention of a passing woman. “This girl here attends Mizzou!” he graciously notifies her, at what’s really a louder-than-necessary decibel for the sparsely populated setting.

She walks over, fear in her eyes. She says her daughter is about to start there and is concerned about the school’s deeply rooted liberal agenda. [9] She steps closer, sending me into the branches of the ficus.

I jump to the defensive, trying to explain I’m here as an impartial journalist who is just trying to report on the convention, but I’m interrupted and my argument falls apart. I have already been deemed a socialist, not to be trusted. The pair speaks some more, agreeing on the liberal agenda that the state’s public university is up to. I excuse myself.

I walk back to the conference room on shaky legs and high heels that dig into the carpet, ready for round two of the grassroots discussion.

Round two brings much of the same. More concerns are voiced about the liberal indoctrination of our children, etc. One woman notes that Democrats sent a letter to public schools, asking for volunteers to help President Obama and Sen. McCaskill get re-elected. Audible gasps from the crowd. Outrage! Liberal indoctrination! The fabric of our society! But the woman pushes on past the gasps, and presents an interesting point.

“You know we can do that too, right?” she asks. More discussion. The blonde session leader agrees that she’d, in fact, sent school teachers information about how to get students to volunteer with the GOP. [10]

“We’re the more organized party,” the crowd is assured, with a prompt head nod. The session leader remains polished and polite as ever, ending the session by giving out her personal cell phone number, in case anyone should think of additional questions after the talk.

On the way out, it’s blue as far as the eye could see. Not red — blue. The Republican Party has, evidently, adopted the not-so-harsh shade of azure to draw voters in, placing names on a background of strong cobalt, halfway between royal navy and bright sapphire. The signs are blue, all of them. Blue.

Except for one, I notice. On a small table near the exit, there’s a little white sign that advertises the “RUSH HOUR PATRIOT RALLY” being held later that day at the Cruisin’ 66 Motorcycle Superstore on Glenstone.

I head that way.

¶ ¶ ¶

At the Willard, Mo., debate., Todd Akin gestures while answering. To his left, John Brunner. To his right, Sarah Steelman.
At the Willard, Mo., debate., Todd Akin gestures while answering a question. To his left sits John Brunner. To his right, Sarah Steelman.

¶ ¶ ¶

A week before, when the Missouri GOP Convention was still a stack of oversized press passes getting run off the printer and an entry on the itineraries and day calendars of more than 2,000 delegates, there was a debate taking place just north of Springfield in a place called Willard, Mo.

It started with a black screen and a TV anchor named Jerry Jacobs, who introduced the people beside him seated on the stage of Willard High School. Beneath the lights were the five prospects who’d declared their intentions to run on the GOP Senate ticket, the ones whose names were already sprouting from the lawns of Missouri: Sarah, Todd and John are the three big names.

Jacobs moved down the line, beginning first with Mark Memoly, a second-tier Republican candidate who will spend much of the night discussing his own Kindle book, “Surrounded By Trees,” and unsuccessfully pushing for debate on high-speed rail. [11]

Then onto Sarah Steelman, who served as State Treasurer of Missouri from 2004 until 2008. She’s the one who’s struggled this election year to differentiate herself from that other GOP Sarah — former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. It doesn’t help that Steelman, like Palin, has been mentioned as a potential future Presidential candidate for the Republican party — by the New York Times, no less. Later in the debate, she lifted a line from the former Alaska governor when she told a panelist, “Please, call me Sarah.”

Next up was Todd Akin, a U.S. Congressman who said he can claim the distinction of being, “rated the most conservative congressman in the state of Missouri.” He went on to add, “I would suggest to you ever since Ronald Reagan, every Republican who runs says they’re conservative, but I believe what I have to offer the U.S. Senate is a proven, principle-driven conservative record.” He later wondered aloud during the debate if the Department of Education is even necessary, a statement that was met with applause and which actually makes it into GOP platform established the following weekend.

John G. Brunner followed. Of the three, he’s the only one who lacks the same political pedigree and background that Sarah and Todd have. But he knows business. Until 2009, Brunner was the CEO of Vi-Jon, a personal care products manufacturing company founded by his grandparents in 1908. It’s the maker of Germ-X hand sanitizer, among other products.

The last was Jerry Beck [12], an advocate for an American economy based upon manufacturing. He spent most of the debate hammering “on the take” nations like China. [13]

These are the candidates. The evening’s debate was their opportunity to set themselves apart. For two hours, the candidates debated governing philosophy, the economy and health care. But the candidates struggled to create any separation from the pack. The same beliefs — emphasis on strengthening the private sector, moving away from big government, eradication of the national debt, a love of the Founding Fathers — are common among all of the candidates.

These were five individuals on stage, but they seemed to agree on most of the big points. When they came upon the President’s healthcare legislation, the panelist simply asked the candidates, “Everyone here would repeal Obamacare, right?” All five said yes, and they moved on to the next question.

Differences didn’t stand out all that much on this night. McCaskill was all that mattered.

¶ ¶ ¶

Ed Martin's "Stop Obamacare" ambulance.
Ed Martin’s ‘Stop Obamacare’ ambulance.

¶ ¶ ¶

Along the busy road, the large white sign stands out, announcing the motorcycle superstore. Next to a storefront with large block red letters advertising ASIAN FOOD, Cruisin’ 66 sits on the back of the lot, with a large parking lot in front, all the better to put Big Dog and Victory motorcycles on display.

Instead of shiny motorcycles, a single ambulance sits in the lot today, a campaign stunt from Ed Martin in his race for attorney general. It’s a message for Missouri conservatives to take back healthcare from the mayhem of Obamacare. The bright red hexagon with the words, “STOP OBAMACARE” gives that one away.

A stage is set up in front of the ambulance, and microphones are plugged in and ready. The crowd isn’t big at first, and volunteers in T-shirts tell me they’re not sure how many people will show up today. But several candidates are here, including Martin, State Representative Paul Curtman and State Representative Shane Schoeller, who organized the event in his campaign for secretary of state.

There’s lots of hand shaking, so-glad-you-could-make-it, good-to-have-you-here support. These candidates are in good company. There’s no need to win over these voters, they’re already sold. Getting voters to donate to the campaign is another story, but I saw multiple checks being signed over to the candidates.

Walking a circuit around the parking lot, a woman stands watching the crowd in the same way I am. I smile, silently hoping that she won’t call me a socialist.

She smiles and asks me what I’m working on. She tells me her name, and says she is a delegate from nearby Stone County. I don’t bust into political questions too quickly, admittedly somewhat reserved after the earlier exchanges and political shoehorning. I explain that I just moved to Springfield, and I tell her I like it here. She laughs and jokes about kicking grumpy people out of the city.

I laugh, thankful to have been approached by someone nice this time around. Would she mind answering a couple of questions for me?

Sure, she says. The civility — the normalness! — is almost disarming.

She says she’s looking for a politician who’s honest and who tells the truth. Someone who has the same message wherever they go, rather than tailoring it to the crowd.

She says she is here because she hates being told what to think, and wants to hear for herself what the candidates have to say. She works as a nurse in town, and is concerned with healthcare, to which she thinks everyone is entitled. Everyone, that is, except people who only sit on their couches waiting for a check to come in the mail. But she doesn’t want to be the one to deny someone care.

She says she’s pro-life, because she believes every life is precious. She doesn’t like Obamacare, because she believes it sends the message that a person is worthless past a certain age.

She’s really just looking to vote for an honest politician.

Nothing too complicated, you know?

In a world where cable news is telling us that Republicans hunt wolves from Halliburton-funded helicopters and Democrats are driving us to hell in a solar-powered Volvo, this is a remarkably sane sort of thing to hear. She has specific issues in mind, and she is pleasant in explaining them. It’s not what I had expected to hear, and I am not sure if my socialist professors back at Mizzou would approve of me giving a hug to this woman for having such rational views.

I nod, instead.

Halfway through the head nod, there’s some hubbub off to the left, and Sarah Steelman arrives on scene, flanked by volunteers holding large cardboard signs behind her, almost as if they were boxing her up then and there for delivery to Washington. Behind the cardboard signs, trying to navigate his way through or find an opening in the makeshift barrier, is a lone man with a video camera on a tall stick.

This man has been around before, staffers tell me, searching for footage of Republican candidates to use in attack ads, or to otherwise embarrass them. The campaign staffers start asking if anyone could serve as a “blocker,” campaign-speak for someone who keeps the camera away from candidates. Sarah Steelman’s recent gaffes — caught on camera — include displaying an apparent ignorance of the Violence Against Women Act and claiming she was “ready to punch McCaskill out.”

In a world where cable news is telling us that Republicans hunt wolves from Halliburton-funded helicopters and Democrats are driving us to hell in a solar-powered Volvo, this was a remarkably sane sort of conversation to have.

It appeared to be a combination of poor timing and poorly chosen words, but that statement made Steelman go viral in a (nearly) unfair way. At a rally hosted by Steelman, a supporter of hers urged that it was time to “kill the Claire Bear,” to which Steelman later responded: “I may disagree with the words Mr. Boston [the supporter] chose in his statement … but I understand his frustration and I emphatically support his right to express his views.”

But not everyone saw it the same way. Steelman’s opponents attacked her for allowing such unforgiving language.

Brunner, who’s also walking around the parking lot here somewhere, albeit a bit more inconspicuously, said of the comment that this sort of, “rhetoric is unconscionable and I reject this kind of politics…. Comments like these have no place in this U.S. Senate campaign, or any other campaign in this country, because they don’t represent American values.”

It’s important to note that Brunner was the first out of the gate with a formally produced attack ad aimed as his counterparts. Digs have been taken via Twitter hashtags such as #nospine, one Steelman used in early December to refer to Brunner, who rebuffed an initial invitation for debate. But Brunner’s ad seems to have changed the game — instead of focusing on debunking McCaskill’s campaign, now the three candidates have taken to discrediting one another.

Brunner’s ad is typical enough of a heated election primary, but the spot has been widely criticized. Both his primary opponents and McCaskill have called foul on the ad.

In politics, everyone has a choice to make about how he or she wants their campaign to be run, and how they want to “fight.” [14] About this, Sarah Palin is most certainly right: We live in the age of “gotcha,” and Republicans and Democrats alike draw from a toolkit, the compartments of which include scare tactics, biased reports and a system of one-upping that tends to dig everyone in a bit deeper.

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Republicans listen to Ed Martin, he of the Obamacare ambulance, at the Patriot Rally.
Republicans listen to Ed Martin, he of the Obamacare ambulance, at the Patriot Rally.

¶ ¶ ¶

Rain clouds sit heavy over Springfield, and the campaign decides to take the rally indoors. A set of amps makes its way through the crowd, held aloft above the heads of brawny good ol’ boy volunteers. The crowd moves inside the motorcycle superstore, as rain drops threaten the heavily hair-sprayed. [15]

In between rows of gleaming All-American motorcycles, delegates from the convention, volunteers, candidates and the press gather just inside the showroom.

Darin Chappell is there to introduce the candidates. He’s a political science professor at Missouri State, as well as Bolivar, Mo.’s city administrator and a panelist at the previous weekend’s GOP Senate debate in Willard, Mo. He steps behind the mic and urges the crowd to “get rid of The Tyrant,” and says that it’s “time to focus on the object of taking our country back” from this “Teflon government.” I notice that he’s careful and deliberate when using the colloquial “Missour-ah” and formal “Missour-ee.” It’s “-ah” with the people, and “-ee” when referring to the legislature.

Chappell introduces Paul Curtman first, a young representative running for re-election in the Missouri House who, without a moment’s hesitation, jumps into the thick of his speech. No Teleprompters, no note cards. Taking the floor, Curtman, a former Marine, is met with a hearty “HOO-RAH” from the crowd, and speaks of freedom and liberty, and how the government’s job is solely to keep man free. He says that the government is out of control and offers his view on how we’ve transgressed from the ideals of our Founding Fathers.

His speech picks up but he doesn’t miss a beat, explaining that America is no. 9 on the list of free countries [16], which is unacceptable in his eyes. He receives several affirmative choruses of “Amen!” from the crowd.

The crowd leans forward, clapping and cheering, as Curtman urges them to take more action, to put themselves outside of their comfort zones and do more for their conservative candidates. More cheers, whistles.

Chappell again. Another introduction, this time for Representative Shane Schoeller, who’s vying for the secretary of state nod against Republican State Senators Bill Stouffer and Scott Rupp.

In a series of eloquent and well-rehearsed remarks, Schoeller’s speech is no exception, though his approach veers slightly from that of his fellow speakers. He strays from the traditional set of political buzzwords and is the first candidate to focus on statistics. Tying Obama’s name to a case of voter fraud in Cook County, Ill., he eggs the crowd on as they grunt their approval, chiming in at only precise moments, the call and response coming naturally.

He asks the crowd to join in on a refrain of “vote ‘em out!” which is met by rounds of hearty applause.

These candidates hold the rapt attention of the crowded motorcycle showroom, despite the Missouri humidity, and despite the long hour ticking by. This afternoon falls squarely in the rally category, and it does not seem odd to anyone in the crowd that they’re separated by columns of high-end American-made muscle. But even more striking is the fact that there’s mostly silence. Hear-a-pin-drop sort of silence. There’s a series of call-and-response opportunities, and there are the sporadic cheers for freedom, but when the candidates speak, the silence is deafening. These people are listening. This is heart to heart, Republican to Republican. This isn’t a pitch; it’s a pump-up speech.

It’s at this point that I realize I’m standing directly next to Sarah Steelman. Her open-toed sandals and immaculate pedicure give her away in a sea of boots and orthopedic shoes.

Brunner is still here as well, standing on the other side of the room in front of a wall of motorcycle boots.

Ed Martin, the attorney general candidate with the subtle ambulance out front, is next. He’s the most vocally religious of the group, objecting to Jesus’ continued exclusion from schools, and insisting that the Creator be present in schools. Applause. Exaggerated eye-rolls from the crowd at the mention of marriage for same-sex couples. He makes a distinction between the crowd here at Cruisin’ 66 Motorcycle Superstore and the rest of the world — there’s a difference between “us” and “them,” he insists.

He tells the crowd that there just aren’t any good Democrats anymore. He wishes it weren’t true, but it is.

“You’re either with Obama and his vision for destroying our lives, and growing government to control who we are and what we’re about,” he says, “or you’re not.”

¶ ¶ ¶

John Brunner, the St. Louis businessman running for Senate.
John Brunner, the St. Louis businessman running for Senate.

¶ ¶ ¶

Day 2.

I can’t find parking, and I’m already late. The parking lot in front of the hotel and conference center is completely packed, with Romney bumper stickers parallel parked beside Ron Paul stickers, sandwiched between Santorum bumper stickers.

I elbow, dip and duck my way through more persistent chaps handing me literature, ignoring their continued call — “Come on, you know you want it!” — and shuffle my way past vendor after vendor hawking Republican memorabilia.

A hotter and more humid day than yesterday, my hair doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s a game of hurry up and wait, as I take my seat in the press section at the back. A boy’s club, I notice, as I become exactly one half of the female press presence. [17]

On my way into the Expo room, I dodge more pamphlets. Hang on. What’s this? A campaign-related word search? No, that I will take, thank you very much, Brunner campaign volunteer.

I survey the Expo center. A huge room, with a banner at the front welcoming delegates. No signs endorsing candidates, just a room divided between congressional districts, with large plain numbers telling people where to sit. Delegates toward the front, alternates at the back, and the media and tech crew sequestered in the very back, roped off from the rest of the room.

Commence the waiting. This is where the word search comes in handy. Claire McCaskill is allotted two places in the word search, one for her first name, and one for her last.

After a mere 34 minutes of waiting, festivities begin with an opening prayer. Without hesitation, every single head in the room bows forward. I know this, because I appear to be the only one still looking up.

There are no false pretenses about this audience: the strongly conservative Christian crowd overwhelms the room.

I notice after the Pledge of Allegiance that the reporter next to me has coffee and a Pop Tart. I already want a snack, and I have a long ways ahead of me before our lunch break. [18]

There’s a surprise video message from Rick Santorum. The winner of the Missouri GOP primary, he unfortunately can’t be with us this morning, as he is celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife. His face fills both screens as he warmly welcomes the crowd, and reminds them that Obama is ineffective and “destroying the very foundation that built the greatest country in the history of the world.”

Here, Santorum broaches a point that seems to run through the convention as a whole. He talks about the importance of finding a conservative voice who can match Obama’s. And it seems to speak to the larger problem faced by the GOP as November looms when he asks the crowd to come together to support Mitt Romney come August.

A resounding “RON PAUL!” echoes through the convention center.

Wait: Is Ron Paul still running?

Never mind that. The convention keeps rolling along. The top three contenders for the Senate candidacy are here, and they finally get to speak. First, it’s Steelman, who rhymes, “The status quo has got to go!” and repeats the phrase, “That’s a threat to our freedom,” several times.

Brunner follows, trying out his own catchphrase, “Stop Obamacare — stop Obama-Claire!” Polls paid for by the Brunner campaign show him as the current front-runner, as told to me by the Brunner campaign.

But that’s not really what’s happening here. All three candidates have had some success this year, but the larger story is that they’re all failing to differentiate themselves from one another. Only 56 percent of voters are familiar with Steelman, according to a May 29 release from Public Policy Polling, compared to 43 percent for Brunner and 42 percent for Akin.

Even so, some pollsters believe that McCaskill’s numbers will dip once the GOP picks its nominee. In that same press release, Dean Debnam, president of PPP, said, “Claire McCaskill’s running even with her GOP opponents but her approval numbers are troubling. Once Republicans are unified around their nominee she could find herself as the underdog.”

Up on stage, Akin rounds out the group, calling out the “stage-three cancer of socialism” that threatens America. He supports Ron Paul, which draws applause from the crowd, and calls himself one of the most conservative politicians in Missouri, which predictably draws applause as well.

Over the course of three speeches from each prospective candidate, Claire McCaskill’s name is mentioned upwards of 13 times.

Then Stanley is called to the front. Who is Stanley? I’m wondering. There is an awkward silence as Stanley fails to appear. The crowd looks around for this mystery man. Still waiting on Stanley, folks, someone says from the podium. Just sit tight, OK?

I wander. I doodle. I eavesdrop. I play I-Spy with myself, counting people wearing hats (seven in my immediate area), sweater vests (one), bowties (one — same guy as the sweater vest. You rock that sweater vest, man), and a surprisingly large number of plaid shirts (I lost track after the first dozen).

Looking at the 2,000+ Republicans in front of me, it’s easy to assume that they’re all the same, that their reasons for being here stem from the same kind of upbringings, that they want the same things. But it’s not true. Nuances divide this crowd, small issues, big issues, where they come from, where they’re going. There are the big city-types who wander dressed in suits and ties, businessmen and women checking their smartphones and expensive watches as time goes on. There are folks from smaller towns, dressed more casually, in sensible shoes, checking messages on their flip phones.

I stand up and walk among the vendors, stopping here and there to make sense of the convention. A Seuss-style book mocking Obama, a concession stand offering large Coca-Colas and candy — Mayor Bloomberg’s influence hasn’t reached the Ozarks yet. A portrait of Ronald Reagan stands behind The Pachyderm Club’s booth.

But of course, there’s still the matter of Stanley. Because until Stanley is found, the order of the convention cannot continue.

When I find my way back to the press seats, I continue my work on the Brunner-themed word search, the back of which tells me I can be entered for a chance to win a $50 gas card if I turn it in completed. Engrossed in my search for words like “Germ-X” and “constitution,” I hardly notice a woman approach me on the right. With a swoop, she sits next to me, leans in close, and says hello.

She explains that she is an alternate, and she is upset that she wasn’t called up as a delegate. She says that she feels Missouri is slipping, and she’s doing her part to get involved. Originally a liberal, she has since made the shift from left to right.

The crowd grows restless as she speaks to me. The crowd begins a slow clap, and then later starts the wave. Sit tight, folks, we’ll be back in a second, we are promised. No sign of Stanley yet. This is perhaps not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created this representative democracy.

I stand up and walk among the vendors. A Seuss-style book mocking Obama, a concession stand offering large Coca-Colas and candy — Mayor Bloomberg’s influence hasn’t reached the Ozarks yet. A portrait of Ronald Reagan stands behind The Pachyderm Club’s booth.

The woman on my right starts asking me questions about national politics. She has theories, you see. That Monica Lewinsky was sent from Israel to destroy Bill Clinton’s presidency, for example.

Her eyes get wide, and she smirks at me. You know, she says, that Hillary Clinton is a bisexual, don’t you? She nods. It’s true, she says. She has a friend who knew someone who knew someone who worked in the White House and didn’t wear panties one day. I have no reaction to this, and I have turned off my tape recorder. I have made her aware that this conversation is on the record.

She has many ideas, many theories about the way that things come to be. But they’re interrupted by the restart of the convention.

Stanley hasn’t been found, it seems, but after half an hour of searching, the GOP’s given up on him. They decide to continue without him. Maybe he wasn’t that important after all?

Voting begins — for important things, I’m assuming. I’m too involved in how they’re voting to pay attention to what they’re voting for.

In 2012, the most efficient means of voting at a statewide convention is to stand up and wait to be counted. This works in elementary school classes, too, though it’s a slightly more arduous process in a 2,000 person convention center.

Other reporters around me begin to grumble. “You know, these things always seem so thrilling to cover…”

Nope. No thrills just yet. More voting. More standing. More discussion, as delegates move to strategically placed microphones throughout the room, voicing their concerns and opinions.

Tedious, yes. But important. These people care. They went through local caucuses and have been chosen as delegates for their area, and they want to be heard. Votes continue.

My stomach rumbles. We have moved into 1 p.m., well past the assigned lunch hour. Suddenly, a voice of clarity from the crowd: “I move that we recess to the overpriced lunch scheduled for 12!”

Shouts from the crowd, agreeing. I agree too, but I lack the ability to vote here [19] meaning that I can’t second the motion myself.

The next half hour goes something like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The reporter to my left has his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking in gentle laughter. There is much eye-rolling from the press section. This is democracy at work.

It is ridiculous, but it’s true. This is how democracy works in its purest form: everyone has a say, and the majority vote decides. It is a long, laborious and tedious process, and they all have equal say, as citizens, from those who care about health care and veterans affairs and to those who suspect Monica Lewinsky is an Israeli spy. In a room like this, they all have an equal say, and a system like this is technically representative of the larger, rather important election that we’re all about to have. We hear them out because they have a right to voice their opinion and be heard.

Microphones are placed in the midst of rows, and people line up behind them in an orderly fashion. They introduce themselves by first name, last name and district. And then they are allowed to speak about the topic at hand, whatever the topic might be. Talking about the party platform [20] somehow transforms into discussing the PATRIOT Act, which creates a rift in the room. Some are outraged, even more than a decade after it was signed into effect, while others insist that anyone who opposes it has something to hide.

According to Section 14 of the Standing Rules for the 2012 Missouri Republican State Convention, “A speech on any question or nomination shall be limited to a period of no more than 3 minutes.” If a delegate runs over the three-minute limit, the crowd raises both hands, pointer finger on the wrist of the other hand, tapping the face of a watch, or where the face of a watch should rest.

Still, I admire them. They are not passive onlookers here in our democracy. Whether or not you agree with them, the thousands who came out to voice their opinion are to be commended for their efforts to take part in building the kind of future that they see for our country. They are not idle, and they don’t believe that they can afford to be. They are standing and having their votes counted, and here, from their community, they are trying to make change.

When discussing the political platform, there is discussion over the amendments submitted to the committee. Over 400 pages were submitted at county caucuses, focusing on the idea of “Reclaiming America’s Future,” which stands as a 12-page, double-spaced document in its draft form. There is a motion to accept the document as is, and forgo reading the amendments submitted. Outcry from the crowd, both groans of annoyance and cheers of support, then a discussion of whether or not it is worth the time to sort through them all.

“What’s our sense on how long the debate will be?” someone asks.

A chuckle. “Well that’s not a loaded question at all…”

More discussion.

A woman standing at the microphone on the left side of the room gets a head nod from the Chairman, signifying her turn. She asks the crowd if anyone’s seen a plane land, a plane carrying the body of a fallen soldier. And whether or not they’ve experienced the silence of the crowd as it watches a coffin roll from the bowels of the plane, a flag fitted on top. The body of an American soldier returned, after he followed orders given to him from the government until his dying day.

In this room, there is nothing more sacred than a veteran and honoring servicemen and women. There is silence, and she asks the crowd if they can afford to not take the time to examine exactly where the party stands.

It’s just one uniting front for the Republican Party, currently torn between multiple prospective candidates gunning for the same position in the same election. The party is divided now, but soon, it’ll get behind a single candidate, a single platform.

Just not today.

¶ ¶ ¶

Sarah Steelman, the Missouri GOP's Sarah.

Sarah Steelman, the Missouri GOP’s Sarah.

¶ ¶ ¶

It’s at this point in the piece that my editor wants me to wax philosophical about where the Republican Party is going, and make some sort of conclusive statement about the weekend and my time spent among the elephants. But I can’t. I mean, I could make some sort of educated guess about what role this particular state convention plays in the grand scheme of things, but it’d be speculation at this point. I could list off the at-large presidential electors selected by standing vote, the at-large national delegates chosen, and the newly elected national committeeman and committeewoman, but that wouldn’t explain to you how genuinely concerned Missourian Republicans are about reaching out to young voters, and it certainly wouldn’t do justice to the fine divisions within the party itself, spliced somewhere between how little they want the government in their lives and how much they want the government in the lives of others.

When I finished my word search, voting was split on how to address the amendments submitted at the local caucuses. No one looked happy, at either the hours inevitably ahead of them, or at the notion that somehow their well-thought-out amendments wouldn’t be heard — everyone wasn’t going to be happy at the end of the day. But that’s democracy. I circled the final letters of “AUGUST,” spelled going up the page in the fourth row to the left in the word search.

In August, the GOP will select one of these three — John, Sarah or Todd — as its candidate, and that candidate will be the one who tries to unseat Claire McCaskill. In August, Republicans from all 50 states will gather in Florida and formally name Mitt Romney as their candidate for the Presidential election. Not Rick Santorum, and not Ron Paul, but Mitt Romney.

From there, we will hear grand statements about the future of America. That one candidate or the other would drive the entire nation into the ground, that we can’t afford to let that kind of tyranny exist here at home. This nation is more polarized than what we’ve encountered in nearly 30 years — a dangerous notion only highlighted by considering an election a “battle.”

It’s just one uniting front for the Republican Party, currently torn between multiple prospective candidates gunning for the same position in the same election. They are divided now, but soon, they’ll get behind a single candidate, a single platform. Just not today.

I was exhausted by the end of the weekend. I was exhausted from attending events that attacked the ideologies of half of America. I was tired of being on the lookout for the unusual or the weird, something to peg on the “otherness” of the right wing. I was tired of hearing how America is being run into the ground by this law or that proclamation, and I was so tired of hearing about “the fabric of society” and how it was being torn and tattered.

I didn’t want to hear any more rhetoric about ideals. I wanted to hear plans. Strategies about bringing people together to do something good, or at the very least ensuring that no one is wrongfully harmed by business ploys or bad legislation or poor budgeting, so that when votes are cast this upcoming November, people know exactly who and what they are voting for.

What I found this weekend was a genuine reasonableness among a majority of the Republicans in attendance. There are certainly loud, unusual voices on the edges — and those outlandish folk make for good story — but that’s not where the heart of the party lies. There is a real sentiment that people here are working toward. They want to be free. They want their kids to grow up in a country they can be proud of.

Democrats want this, too, I think. The definition of “country they can be proud of” is just different.

Here you have an entire room full of people who are mashing together plans for the future of America. In another room and in another state and with a whole other group of people are different plans for the future of America. In order to have any sort of future at all for America, though, these people in all these different rooms have to come together and reach a compromise.

I gather my pen, notebook, word search, and recorder, and head out the door with the discussion still carrying on behind me. Delegates are still lined up behind microphones, though the alternate sections have cleared out for the most part. A strategic team of Brunner volunteers stand at the ready outside of the double doors leading into the balmy afternoon, stacks of yard signs resting against their legs and in their arms. No thank you, Brunner team. Good word search, though.

It’s been 30 hours with the GOP. I’ve been called a socialist. I’ve discussed healthcare next to an anti-Obamacare ambulance. I’ve heard theories about Monica Lewinsky that the Weekly World News would deem a bit far-fetched. I’ve seen 2,000 delegates stand to have their votes counted.

But it is past six o’clock, and there is no resolution on the platform in sight, and I am tired of democracy. I am tired of hearing about America. No more America, please. Not tonight.

I leave the Missouri GOP Convention, and head to a minor league baseball game instead.

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