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Away from the TV cameras, Drake upholds Iowa Caucus traditions

August 5, 2007
Photo of campaign signs
Supporters and their signs jam the University Avenue parking lot across from Old Main.

It's 5:30 in the morning, and Rachel Geilenfeld was trying hard to remain dry. The tickets for Sunday's nationally televised Republican presidential debate at Drake University were free, but the price paid by the 23-year-old Mitt Romney volunteer was to be buffeted by rain and wind sneaking into an open-air tent.

"A Romney staff member told us that we should be here at 5 a.m.," explained the 23-year-old political science major from Clear Lake, Iowa, who joined hundreds of others on campus and an anticipated audience of millions to watch the debate, on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "This is my first political campaign."

It is not the first campaign for Vic Ratner. The 65-year-old ABC Radio reporter looked up from preparing a 6 a.m. live feed to praise the virtues of the Iowa caucuses. "Iowa is one of the great joys I look forward to in every campaign," says the 25-year veteran. "It is one of the few places where retail politics rises above the modern world of two-minute sound bites."

The modern world intruded on Drake this past week, culminating Sunday with the first debate of the 2008 campaign aired on a major over-the-air network, and Drake thrived. "Very professionally done," praised California Congressman and candidate Duncan Hunter. "I'm proud of my alma mater," added former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. "Excellent facilities and arrangement," contributed Kansas Senator and candidate Sam Brownback.

There were doubts Sunday morning. Amid sheets of rain and ominous lightning flashes, the campus resembled a football stadium on game day: TV trucks scattered everywhere, metal grates shielded yards of thick electrical cable, and two huge insulation tubes resembling gargantuan earthworms snaked into and out of Sheslow Auditorium, which would host the nine hopefuls, roughly 700 spectators, host George Stephanopoulos and the guest questioner, Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen.

The main stage of the Harmon Fine Arts Center had morphed into the "Spin Room," where countless journalists would question countless handlers as to who won the 90-minute debate. The huge pipe organ presided over the now-empty stage, festooned by ABC and campaign banners. (For a look at how the campus appeared, visit our photo gallery.)

Sheslow, however, was dressed for a gala. Suits were de rigueur for men, blouses and skirts for women. 

A beaming Drake President David Maxwell proudly reminded the audience of Drake University's unique role in American democracy, serving as "a community and culture that fiercely protects and encourages the unfettered and free ideas of perspectives … that encourages the examination of competing ideas in search of even greater knowledge."

Knowledge, politics and state mixed, at least for a few minutes, when Mark Arant, director of the Salt Co., president of the college ministry of the Cornerstone Church in Ames, delivered the invocation, before the candidates paraded onstage. "Mayor Giuliani entered the auditorium to the biggest applause," noted Drake student blogger Jordan Oster. His blog is posted on the Drake Web site.

But as television threatened to take over once and for all, an unscripted moment reminded everyone that maybe Iowa is special after all: As the opening theme music rang throughout the auditorium, the morning gloom was replaced by brilliant sunlight streaming through the east-side stained-glass windows.

Drake gets an encore in two weeks when "This Week" hosts the Democratic candidates on Sunday Aug. 19. Retail politics lives.