They came early.
An hour before the start of the Rudy Giuliani event, the tiny American Legion Hall in Mt. Vernon was packed with veterans, party faithful and state legislators -- some who made it abundantly clear to me, they were there to listen and pay their respects. Not to endorse. At least, not yet.
"I'm still learning about all this," said State Sen. Jack Goodman to me, stuck in the doorway of the Legion Hall. "I figured a presidential candidate from my party is visiting my town, I should be here."
Rep. Shane Schoeller walks in the door, gives me a hearty handshake and deadpans with a grin -- "No, this is not an endorsement, Dave."
These comments are emblematic at how splintered and conflicted Ozarks Republicans are about their choice for president this time around.
But at this point, it doesn't matter. It's hot in this overpacked hall. The oldest trick in the political handbook is to over-book a tiny venue to enhance the crowd size. It certainly has worked. We're bustin' at the gords here! But now as I look across the hall, G.O.P. honcho Mavis Busiek has a panicked look on her face as she attempts to accommodate more attendees.
And did I mention it's getting hot . . . in November? Maybe I should've spent more time outside with the 5 Ron Paul supporters and their waving signs. "Remember he (Ron Paul) and McCain are the only two who are veterans," one Paul supporter from Joplin reminds me.
He's on time. No, he's late. Wait, he's on time. Good. Ten minutes late. Ok. Cool. Not bad.
A veteran decides to lead the crowd of 170 (yes, I counted . . . or at least tried to) in the Pledge of Allegiance. Right after the money line . . . "With Liberty and Justice for All," a woman yelps, "That's it baby. The Democrats aren't for that!"
What? Wow. Huh? Even the Republican crowd looks around kinda spooked. "That quieted things down," quips one print reporter.
It's not awkward for this woman. She's wearing a white T-shirt that blares, "98% of the Democrats give the rest a bad name."
I'm getting antsy. There's no point in doing interviews before Giuliani speaks. What if people change their mind after they hear his rhetoric? So I start to look for information right in front of me. I calculate the average age of the person in the crowd is probably early to mid 50s. "Hi, I'm Maria," a political-type person says, interrupting my thoughts.
Maria is one of Giuliani's "advance-people." Meaning, she gets to events first to make sure things are cool. "You'll have to forgive me, I don't know Springfield that well," she says looking a bit exhausted, exactly like someone should look who is working on a presidential campaign.
After introductions and providing a few tidbits, my attention again turns to how most people are fanning themselves. Every time there's any movement near the doorway, attendees ready their picture phones. An elderly woman asks me for a sheet of my notebook paper in case she's able to score an autograph with "Hizzoner."
It's 2:50 now. Sen. Kit Bond jumps on stage with more energy I've ever seen him release. Kit is pumped. The crowd is too. He's got a bounce in his step. Kingmaker Kit? Maybe. Bond salutes the vets, rattles off Rudy's stats. He calls New York the "safest city in the U.S." because of Rudy. What about Springpatch?
Cut taxes 23 times. . . Blah . . . Blah. Let's see Rudy already.
2:55. Rudy makes his way to the stage. The crowd eats it up. Rudy starts local, noting the high school football game at 7 p.m. A teenage boy yells, "Go Mountaineers!" Nice touch for a New Yorka. "Great, that means I'll wrap up around 6:45 p.m," he says. Funny. But not Huckabee funny. Still, not bad.
Rudy then gets his groove. 9-11, the moment. Bin Laden, the enemy. Islamic terrorism, the challenge. Every four sentences or so, he bashes a Democrat.
For not supporting the troops in Iraq.
For gutting American intelligence in the 90s.
For not understanding the Islamic threat.
He's mentioning Clinton a lot. First, he attacks Bill. Then Hillary. Obama gets one line of his attention. But this is all about the Clintons, and you can tell by the look on Rudy's face, that he savors it. Why waste time on Mitt and Fred, when there's a general election to look forward to?
After the tough terror talk and the Clinton bashing, come the questions . . .
On global warming . . . Yeah, it's happening, but the earth ain't gonna melt in 2 years. Chill out.
One man with a long beard asks Rudy if he plans to take away his guns? No, Rudy says. Not unless you're a criminal.
Rudy rejects "the fair tax" proposal to one attendee, calling it "unreasonable."
Here is Rudy's inherent strength. He tells you straight-up. No BS. No flip-flop here. I know you like the flat tax, ma'am. But I'm telling you, it ain't gonna happen. Just bein' honest. K?
In his answers on illegal immigration and healthcare, Rudy remains tough but dares to get specific. His answers are long, but seem knowledgeable and informed. He has done his homework.
More hands are up, but Kit Bond says enough. Well, he didn't really SAY enough. But says Rudy must get along now.
And so he does . . . to a backroom at the legion, with Bond, some G.O.P. honchos and state lawmakers. There's no way to know exactly what went on back there. But I'm sure it has a lot to do with pressuring guys like Sen. Goodman and Rep. Schoeller to sign on. (You saw him out there . . . They ate him up! These are your people!)
Meanwhile, the crowd piling out is buzzing with excitement. With just an hour till my first live shot, I'm looking for raw reaction. Sticking a mic in faces. I'm bound to find someone who wasn't impressed, right?
Nope. 5 for 5. Everyone I grabbed liked Rudy --- not just liked him, they're voting for him. Done deal. Some were women who seemed more moderate than the average pro-life Ozarks Republican. "I believe a woman should be able to do what she wants with her body," one told me. But others were men and they like Rudy because he's a manly man. Tough. "He's a leader," one says.
They're fine that Giuliani once dressed in drag, lived with gay guys and announced at a press conference he was leaving his wife. (Ok, maybe they don't know all that.)
But he's a leader, damnit! Didn't you just hear him! And we've gotta beat Hillary!
A thrice-married, pro-choice, pro-gay rights mayor winning over Republicans in the Ozarks?
Don't bet against it.
I saw it before my very eyes.