There's something amiss at Knoxville's GOP presidential race headquarters in 2008, and the vital evidence can be found in, of all places, the john.
Once before, way back in 2004, Metro Pulse watched the drama of the presidential contest unfold at both local HQs. There was a pervading sense of conclusions happily foregone at the Republican outpost in Bearden then, a trumping aura of inevitability. Nowhere was that sense more evident than in the spacious GOP bathroom, a gleaming porcelain throne room redolent of pine-scented victory.
Meanwhile, at the doomed Demos' patchwork quarters off Northshore, the bathroom was so tiny as to render basic operations nearly untenable, and so close to one's fellows outside as to create unreasonable fear of acknowledgement in the instance of certain unfortunate sonic events. And upon flushing, aging pipes groaned onerously behind poorly plastered walls.
This year the bathroom in back of McCain Central is still a model of spotless modernity, well kept with brindled tile floors and the lovely, ever-so-subtly spiced fragrance of Power House Citrus Bouquet in the air. But on the wall next to the sink is a square patch of unfinished wood interrupting the wall's otherwise faultless sea of green. Something is missing, and printed on white paper there is a telling sign:
"PLEASE DON'T PULL STRAIGHT DOWN ON PAPER TOWELS. PLEASE UNWRAP. MOUNTING IS NOT AS STABLE AS IT SHOULD BE."
A sign of things to come? Who knows? But it does seem the Republicans are a humbler lot this time around, with their candidate John McCain apparently struggling to surmount the lead of his opponent, Democratic nominee Barack Obama (though McCain had narrowed the gap, shortly before press time) in the closing weeks of the campaign.
More humble, and more guarded, too. When a Metro Pulse reporter first visits the headquarters on the Saturday afternoon of a home football game, Suzanne Dewar, perpetually stationed in the captain's chair at the desk in front of the room, observes curtly that, "You're with the liberal media—that paper."
Fixing her visitor with the kind of arched-brow gaze usually reserved for Bowery bums malingering in a jewelry store, she refers all questions to her office manager.
But not everyone is so circumspect. There's Matt "Just-Like-the-Actor" Stratham, for instance, a short, stocky 26-year-old who seems to remain in constant motion, carrying out even the most menial campaign chores with an affable grin on his face. With his burred head and Hard Rock Baghdad T-shirt ("Closed for Renovation"), Stratham relates that he did a year's tour in Iraq as a combat engineer, a job markedly more dangerous than it sounds: "We were the ones who made sure bombs weren't out on the roads."
Now in the National Guard and on the verge of entering the University of Tennessee to study economics, Stratham says McCain's own service in Vietnam was key to his volunteering: "I didn't feel the absolute need to volunteer in the last election," he says. "After going to Iraq myself, and knowing that he was in the service, that was a big reason I supported John McCain."
And then there's Shane Sandefur, the local party's director of communications for the duration of the race. Tall and tan, black hair setting off a fluorescent green polo, he looks every bit the part of the classic All-American fraternity house overachiever, already a working real-estate agent and party activist at age 21.
Hailing from a not-very-political family, Sandefur says he turned sharply right during his college years, serving as an intern for Bob Corker's Senate campaign while still a student at UT. "I'm a big pro-life person," he says. "And I don't like paying taxes."
And then there's the Lady in Purple (name withheld by her own request), a short, 50-ish woman with red hair, a visitor and occasional volunteer who expounds for the better part of 30 minutes—once she realizes she has a captive audience—on how, in spite of her prior association with the Democratic Party, she now casts her lot with Republicans due to the party's stance on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
"They're against the scriptures," she says. "I feel God wants our leaders to obey Him. He doesn't want all these babies killed."
Handing her listener a pamphlet outlining the various abortion-related stances of both candidates, she confides that she's "really afraid for this country. Killing babies, using it as a form of birth control. And it's half the country that feels that way. They don't have any respect for life."
Set in the farthest corner of the Downtown West strip mall, just a few storefronts over from the Fins 'n' Skins exotic pets outlet, the Republican HQ is slick and well-appointed—it could readily stand in as an appliance showroom—and set about with huge banners depicting the man Paris Hilton referred to as "wrinkly old dude" in her infamous YouTube response to a McCain campaign remark. Almost equally visible—and allotted their very own banner, thank you—are the aging-hottie mug and frozen smile of McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
At the front of the room is the good stuff—the merch, T-shirts and hats and bumper stickers and campaign buttons, and even Republican Party jewelry (!?). The shirts and buttons are stencilled with various slogans and messages, of both the overarchingly somber ("John McCain: Country First") and weirdly frivolous ("Our Mama Beats Your Obama") variety.
Nearly as important, located behind truncated partitions in the next section of the room, are the signs, mostly wire yard signs, which arrive in separate pieces and seem to mandate a more or less constant assembly line of two or three volunteers.
The signs fly out the door, usually to suburban visitors who pull up to the doorway in leviathan SUVs, at an astonishing rate. Sandefur says the national party was unable to send a new shipment for more than a week at one point, resulting in a backlog of more than 650 unfilled yard sign requests. "They figured other states needed them more than we did, I guess," he says.
Besides writing press releases and fielding nosy reporters, Sandefur says his job calls for him to do "a little bit of everything" most days, from sign assembly to party planning to assisting the volunteers—usually one or two, at any given moment—busy working the phones in back, calling registered Republicans to remind them of early ballots and of the ineffable wisdom of voting McCain.
Beyond that, he says, there's no prescribed method for the madness, no quotas for calls or canvassing visits: "We just do whatever we have enough volunteers around to do. It's different every day. We don't have any set number of calls we try to make, or whatever. We just do as much as we can with the people we have."
Which is a not-inconsiderable number. When asked just how many folks the local party has at its disposal, volunteer Jo Catlett pulls out a thick binder of laminated pages, each with a dozen or more names, and says, "We have this many," flipping through the voluminous notebook at a brisk clip.
From a practical standpoint, however, that translates to about 30 to 40 solid, regular volunteers, people like Sandefur and Stratham. On a busy weekday afternoon, it means perhaps 10 or 12 volunteers working any of the various informal work stations, manning phones or putting together signs or fielding requests (usually for signs or merchandise) from the SUV people, who on a good day seem to pull up to the storefront in constant, clockwork succession.
But for all of the bustle and earnestness of the volunteers, for all of the rapidly disappearing yard signs and pink Palin T-shirts (featuring a pink elephant and the caption "It's a girl"), for all of the classic Republican rhetoric and the twin TVs constantly blaring Hannity and Cavuto and O'Reilly and the rest of the Fox News Channel rottweillers from separate corners of the room, there's a telling, if subtly manifested, weakness in the air here at Republican central.
It's a weakness that was likewise evident at the Democratic presidential headquarters back in 2004, the nerve center of the ill-fated Kerry campaign. While the '04 Bushies seemed unwaveringly convinced of the abiding and intrinsic wonderfulness of W., the Kerryites seemed like not so much Kerryites as people voting against Bush, locked in loveless marriage to a candidate they merely tolerated so as to stave off further miseries with another one they loathed.
So, too, the Republicans here at this year's campaign headquarters often seem not so much enamored of the staid, intermittently centrist McCain as anxious to blunt the headlong momentum of the Demos' charismatic liberal golden child, Obama.
James Gallup, a 23-year-old former student anticipating a chance to enter the U.S. Air Force as an officer, confesses that his first love was ordained-minister-turned-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Though he's quick to qualify: "But I wasn't disappointed [with McCain] at all. The main reason I was for Huckabee was his fair tax plan."
When asked about his choice in the Republican primary, Sandefur smiles sheepishly, as if caught in a harmless untruth, then admits with some prodding that he preferred Mormon Mitt Romney. Also a Romney man is fireball conservative Antonio Hinton, 35, chairman of the state's black Republicans group, and an occasional political analyst for local radio station WNOX.
"I admit I wasn't really for McCain because I didn't perceive him to be as conservative as many of the other candidates when the primary began," Hinton says. "I would like to have had a more conservative candidate. But at least we did get Sarah Palin."
It's an unspoken, yet pervasive, feeling: that McCain isn't so much the man these Republicans wanted as the man they got.
An almost wonkish political observer, with a predilection for firing off detailed responses to whatever's being said on Fox TV, Hinton offers up the quote of the week when he notes that, "I think the majority of people are suffering from Electile Dysfunction. And that's defined as the inability to be stimulated or aroused by our election season."
Moments later, a 60-ish northeastern transplant with a jowly countenance and a heavy Jersey brogue walks in the front door and asks: "Have you got any Joe the Plumber signs?"
So, like the 2004 Kerry contingent, the GOP seems caught up in an "Anyone-but" kind of race, wherein the top of their ticket is often overshadowed by the likes of the former beauty queen they've tapped for funeral duty, and a reticent Midwestern john-jockey unexpectedly bequeathed with 15 minutes of fame.
Where the Republicans seem to draw their energy is from a powerful, shared contempt for the policies and persona of Barack Obama. Says Hinton, "He's a Chicago politician. 'Nuff said. A Chicago politician threatening to become a leader in Washington—which is even more frightening. He's a socialist who associates with racists, terrorists, and his corrupt political friends in Chicago."
The mild-mannered Gallup even ventures out on the conspiracy tip: "There are lots of things about Obama I find very, very shady. For someone of his humble beginnings to be thrust to the forefront, to go from one of the poorest candidates to one of the best-funded—it feels like this whole thing is being moved by an invisible hand."
Oh, and one other outlook these local Republicans share: a bunker mentality where the media is concerned. Hinton notes in passing, on more than one occasion, that "the media is obviously in the tank for Obama," repeating a national refrain.
Nonetheless, it must be said that, throughout the research for this story, he and the other Republican regulars were pretty accommodating to Metro Pulse, a paper notable for its stances in favor of beer, free love, communism, rock music, devil worship, dope, and civil unions between man and horse—all the things that good Republicans everywhere must forever stand against. By the time a Pulse reporter's visitations had ended, in fact, even suspicious-minded Susan Dewar had warmed considerably to our presence.
Which is why we feel compelled to issue a good-faith warning to our brethren at Republican HQ: Things don't look good for their man McCain. The Bathroom Gods have conjured ill portents this time around, and the gods are infrequently wrongmbat engineer, a job markedly more dangerous than it sounds: "We were the ones who made sure bombs weren't out on the roads."