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The Oops Diaries: Hugs and Tears in Iowa

After Gov. Rick Perry came in a dismal fifth place in the Iowa caucuses, he said he was going home to Texas to reassess his chances. In this excerpt from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail, I describe the scene at Perry's hotel.

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"I walked with [CBS reporter] Rebecca Kaplan back to our floor, and we both decided this was the most disastrous and yet most entertaining campaign we would probably ever cover. It would never be this good again. From treasonous Ben Bernanke to all those heartless immigrant haters, through the oops moment, the voting-age gaffe, Sonia Monteyamor and Joe Arapahoe, we had been there to chronicle it. We killed it, man!"

— Excerpted from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail.

From Chapter 11: "Caucus Time."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 — Part 1

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s 3:46 a.m., and I’m in my room at the Sheraton West Des Moines. I would probably be hammered if we hadn’t run out of booze, because that’s the kind of night it’s been.

The governor announced a few hours ago that he is canceling his upcoming South Carolina trip and going home to Texas for some “prayer and reflection” to see if there’s a “path forward” after his ass-kicking tonight in the Iowa caucuses. Everybody knows what that means. No more debates! Oh please, God.

Iowans don’t start voting until evening at these caucuses, which are like hundreds of little popularity contests held at gyms and churches across the state. So we first had to endure an exhausting five public events, beginning with Perry’s address to the Texas Strike Force, otherwise known as the special interest lobby of Austin.

I got started at the Sheraton restaurant, where I caught a rare glimpse of Joe Allbaugh—table hopping, talking to various Texans and Friends of Rick. I always thought the former FEMA director, despite his gruff exterior and large build, was a big ol’ teddy bear inside. But most of the Texans who work for him at Perry HQ seem to hate his guts. I passed by one of the tables where he was seated and said hello in passing. I went through the buffet line, sat down, and swilled a bunch of coffee with my lumpy and mostly dry scrambled eggs. Allbaugh, still making his rounds, came and sat down for a while with me. “I didn’t know you’d be sitting alone,” he said.

He grabbed the USA Today sitting at the table and glanced at a story by national political writer Susan Page. It largely concluded that Perry was on his last leg. Joe told me to tell her he was mad at her for that. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t been out on the road, and certainly not anywhere near the moribund Perry campaign, but I promised him I would tell her if I saw her. National attention has dropped off, which is both good and bad. It’s good because I don’t have to wade through a bunch of competitors to get access. It’s bad because nobody cares about the story anymore.

By late afternoon all the reporters had set up shop in a relatively small ballroom, with press risers in the back and a podium and microphone in front. Ben Philpott [of Austin public radio station KUT] had a dedicated high-speed Internet line, which was key because wireless sucks in Iowa and there was obviously a big draw on it here. I let [ABC reporter] Arlette Saenz glom onto my Verizon wireless signal but I was hanging on to the password Philpott gave me as if it were the nuclear launch code. Behind the podium was a large TV screen on the wall where we would watch the returns come in. Perry hit two caucuses himself, and supposedly 1,500 surrogates—the Texas Strike Force plus a bunch of other volunteers—fanned out across the state to advocate for him at the 1,700-plus voting sites.

They had a 15-passenger bus ferrying reporters to the two events but I only went to one of Perry’s appearances. Ann Romney was there, too, speaking for Mitt. Perry spoke first and then hugged her before she went onstage. I skipped Perry’s second caucus appearance and went to the filing room. The results from CNN entrance polls were already coming in. It looked like a very bad night for Rick Perry. There weren’t many people in the dingy ballroom. With hundreds of Texans around I figured there would be more crammed in. I guess the strike force was all out at those far-flung caucuses.

Perry surfaced at around nine o’clock, stood in the middle of the ballroom, and did a live shot with Fox, with all the reporters jammed in around him to record what he said. Arlette typed up a transcript of it and e-mailed it to me. It seemed a little delusional to me. He said it was still early in the evening and there was “a lot of hope and excitement.” He said he would “wait to see in the morning what it looks like.” Wait till the friggin’ morning? Would it take that long to count? “He looks sad/tired,” Arlette texted me. Then Wolf Blitzer started spilling the awful truth. Perry would come in fifth, at barely 10 percent—behind Romney, Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich.

What a collapse. The guy who had raised $17 million in forty-nine days—a bigger third-quarter haul than even Mitt Romney—and who had spent way more on TV here than all the other candidates. The former front-runner who once seemed like the inevitable conservative alternative. Fifth place? Given the damn-the-torpedoes attitude of late, I fully expected Perry to step onstage and give a defiant speech, to proclaim that this was a minor setback. Onward to South Carolina. He’s been saying that repeatedly. But that’s not what happened. Instead he got pretty emotional, started talking about how it was all worth it, how there is “no greater joy” than his experience out there on the trail.

And then: “I’ve decided to return to Texas to assess the results of tonight’s caucuses, and determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race.” He spent a few minutes working the rope line, and I saw his Iowa director, Bob Haus, wiping away tears and hugging him. Everybody seemed to be feeling the catharsis of nearly five months going up in smoke—the last three of them really god-awful. I saw one of Perry’s top aides milling around and I practically leaped at him. “So this is over, right? I mean, he’s saying reassess, but …” I didn’t get to finish my sentence.

“It’s done,” the adviser said. A couple of seconds passed as we just stared at each other, and he felt like he had to throw in a little caveat: “But you know Rick Perry,” he said. “He’s crazy. You never know what he’s going to do. He might wake up tomorrow and decide he’s back in.” I sent off a Tweet: “Hugs and Tears at Perry HQ in Iowa.” I was dying to get to the bar, where people were starting to gather. Arlette and Ben Philpott had been busily typing away, too, but when I looked up after filing my story I was the only one left in the Sheraton ballroom. I heard a loud cheer rise up from the bar. Damn. Had Perry gone out there to the bar? I stuffed my charger and audio cable into my backpack. Then I heard another loud cheer. My God, what was I missing? I ran into the bar area, which was overflowing, and asked around: What the fuck is happening?

“They were doing shots,” someone said. “For Rob.” They were toasting Rob Johnson, the campaign manager who had been busted down to a lowly surrogate and replaced by Bush-era honcho Joe Allbaugh. It was proof that Rob was the one who still had the loyalty of all the campaign staffers. That set the mood for the night. Everybody was toasting everybody else, and hugging and crying. I invited several people to future lunches in Austin. I promised I’d stay in touch. I gave some unsolicited career counseling. I ran into one senior aide who was very happy to be moving on.

“Dude, no matter how bad you’ve heard it was, it was ten times worse,” he said. He told me that at the end there had been two distinct campaigns at the end: the “zombie campaign,” composed of Texas loyalists walking around in a funk, waiting for it all to end; and the “shadow campaign,” the one with all the power, composed of D.C. consultants running the show from the Stephen F. Austin Hotel across the street from Perry campaign HQ in Austin. Grim. By then, it was practically impossible to get a drink at the bar because the bartenders were so busy. When they closed it down, the party spilled over into Perry policy analyst Sean Davis’s room.

I brought what was left of Arlette’s Grey Goose, which made me a very popular guy. I have this vision of a mildly incoherent Perry spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, laughing uncontrollably on the bed, and wondering what new fate might await her back home. Luckily, we ran out of booze about an hour ago. I walked with [CBS reporter] Rebecca Kaplan back to our floor, and we both decided this was the most disastrous and yet most entertaining campaign we would probably ever cover. It would never be this good again. From treasonous Ben Bernanke to all those heartless immigrant haters, through the oops moment, the voting-age gaffe, Sonia Monteyamor and Joe Arapahoe, we had been there to chronicle it. We killed it, man!

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