DATELINE: Los Angeles, California
Yesterday we took a few blissful, super-indulgent hours out of the trail to visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Watching the CNN debates had been like a towering plate of stinking, over-boiled cabbage, and the zoo was our ice cream sundae reward at the end of it. We were still looking for political resonance in the animals though – the meerkats’ group-formation standing, sitting, and realignments was slightly like the Iowa Caucus without the shouting. The forlorn, displaced polar bears were a stark reminder of how tragically absent climate change has been from either party’s agenda. And, of course, the chimpanzees all looked like George W. Bush. Ba-boom-tsss. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week – try the steak tips, don’t forget to tip your waitress.
After five exhausting, gleeful hours marvelling at the myriad wonders of the animal kingdom, in particular the phenomanally human way the chimp family interacted with one another, of course our next move was to go and meet supporters of a candidate who believes evolution is just a theory, to be taught alongside creationism in schools. After all, what better way to spend your first Friday night in a glamourous Californian city than by standing in the dark on a cold, busy intersection with sign-waving supporters of Mike Huckabee?
Well, the first people we met were a warm, friendly family of eight. Father of the tribe, Mark, is quite a talker: a rambling, laughing talker. A pro-life Christian who only drops his smile in 20 minutes of election chit-chat to say that he thinks abortion a horrible thing. He radiates humility, but is clearly very proud of his six home-schooled kids, all waving their home-made signs enthusiastically and screaming every time a car honks its horn. Mike Huckabee is the only one for Mark – “he tells it like it is, and unlike some candidates, he cares about the people at the lower end of the economic scale”.
But the unspoken truth for Huckabee supporters is their candidate is going out after Super Tuesday; indeed the odds seem to be pointing to a McCain victory, which would alienate vast numbers of conservative Republicans, most notably conservative Christians like Mark et famille.
So what does he think of McCain? He screws his face up in disgust. “People are only voting for him out of fear. They’re afraid – of Iran, of terrorism.. but that doesn’t make sense. It’s been six years since 9/11, and nothing else has happened. I don’t know what they’re doing to keep us safe – maybe I don’t want to know – but it’s working. Also McCain is not a traditional Republican. He’s co-authored a lot of bills with people who are anathema to Republicans, like Feingold and Kennedy.”
What about Romney then? The former Massachusetts Governor surely provides the better chance of a conservative Christian candidate securing the Republican nomination? Mark screws up his face even more. “In America, we threw off Kings many years ago, and we don’t want to go back to that. I think he thinks very highly of himself.” Mark’s wife is equally dismissive, just as Huckabee-or-nothing in her attitude: “Romney is smug and arrogant, and he’s flip-flopped on abortion. For me choosing a candidate is a pro-life issue, more than anything.”
On the way back to the car we say hi to some of the sign-wavers on the opposite side of the intersection, and get split into Good Cop/Bad Cop conversations: I am lucky to have buttonholed Scott, a wonderfully warm 40something from Kansas, who used to fly secret courier missions in the first Gulf War. We chat amiably about how socialised medicine (i.e. the NHS) works in practice, and the promise shown by the pre-Watergate Richard Nixon – Scott’s dad was a delegate for Tricky Dicky at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Rachael and Tom have got stuck with the Bad Cop.
“That guy was really scary” they keep saying, shaking their heads as we return to the car. Touraj was eyeballing them, shouting “Huckabee!” at apparently random intervals in the middle of the conversation, telling them Democrats – and even undecideds – are godless, that “liberals kill humans” (an abortion reference, presumably, rather than co-ordinated ideological homicide?), and rounds off with a defence of George W. Bush.
“Bush doesn’t have the support of half the country. If you’re CEO of a business, and half of your staff don’t support you, your business will fail. Half of this country is stupid.”
Actually Bush’s most recent approval rating was 33%, meaning that by Touraj’s reckoning, 67% of his country is stupid, technically. But I wasn’t going to go back to the sparsely-populated, ill-lit intersection to tell him that.