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Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
DES MOINES — In the final days before Iowa voters head to caucus, Ben Carson has kept a slim schedule compared to many of his Republican presidential rivals. But it hasn’t felt like that to me.
Though Carson held just one public event on Tuesday — appearing at a Des Moines church — I’ve been running into the onetime GOP frontrunner multiple times a day. He happens to be staying in the hotel room across the hall from me at a local Marriott.
It was something I suspected early Tuesday morning, when I arrived at my hotel well after midnight to find a Secret Service agent standing in the hallway outside my room. A few hours later, I heard a familiar voice outside my door. I peeked through the peephole, and there was Carson, exchanging pleasantries with a member of the hotel staff, apparently on his way to another room down the hall.
When I left my room a little while later, Carson was just walking back into his, but it was too late to say hello.
A few hours later, my colleague Khue Bui and I decided to grab a bite at a Des Moines-area institution: the Machine Shed restaurant, where candidates regularly host meet-and-greets to woo potential voters. It’s rare not to see some political celebrity there, and as we walked in, Ted Cruz’s dad, Rafael, rushed past us out the door, apparently running late.
But as we were taken to our booth, it was hard to miss the large number of Secret Service agents positioned around the restaurant’s gift shop — next to the ceramic cows, the “DANG That’s Good” novelty T-shirts and the pig magnets stamped with the word “IOWA.”
A U.S. Secret Service agent stands post as Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson dines in an adjoining room, Jan. 26, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
“Is a candidate here?” I asked the hostess.
“They are always here,” she replied, still Iowa nice but also sounding a little weary.
A few minutes later, after we ordered, a group was seated at a table a few feet away from us. “I cannot believe we spend our tax dollars on that,” one man grumbled. “I mean, he is like 1 percent in the polls.”
I had a suspicion of who he was talking about, and within an instant, our waitress approached the table with refills on our iced tea and some news. “Ben Carson is here,” she said. He was now walking around the restaurant’s front dining room, and she expected him to come to our section next. “I think he’ll take pictures with you if you want to,” she said.
Finally, I was going to meet Carson!
Khue, a photographer, grabbed his camera, and I fished out my tape recorder. I had all the right questions ready: Was he a member of Marriott Rewards too? Had he registered for that MegaBonus offer? What did he think about the company’s acquisition of Starwood? Oh, and maybe something about that guy Donald Trump.
Our food came, but Carson never did. It turns out he wasn’t there to mingle. He was only there to eat, and that’s what he did, except for the few times he stood up to pose for pictures with people who approached him, not vice versa.
After we paid our tab, we wandered through the dining room where Carson was still eating, his back to us. We stopped and browsed around the gift shop and spoke to a member of his security detail who, like us, had spent many cold winters in Iowa covering presidential candidates.
A Carson staffer suspiciously came up to us. “Who are you with? What are you doing here?” he said.
“We just ate lunch,” I replied.
When Carson left the restaurant, he didn’t talk to us or anybody else, but when I got back to my hotel room later, I once again heard him talking to someone outside my door. A candidate who is nowhere, but everywhere, it seems.
Ben Carson leaves after lunching at the Machine Shed, Jan. 26, 2015, in Urbandale, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)