NEWTON, Iowa – Right under the picture of Marilyn Monroe, the muted television set at the Newton Family Restaurant was tuned to the Fox News recap of the vice-presidential debate as the on-screen headline blared, “The Gloves Are Off.” But chatting with the 7 a.m. Friday breakfast crowd, many of them night-shift workers and retirees, it was hard to find anyone who actually watched the bare-knuckle brawl between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.
That’s not entirely true, because Joyce Gilbreaith, a retiree sharing sausage patties and hash-brown potatoes with her husband Bill, admitted to me: “I watched about 10 minutes of it and then turned it off. I got sleepy. I don’t like any debates like that – they’re so unfriendly.”
Heidi Rodgers caught the beginning of it before she had to leave for her job as an overnight customer service manager at Walmart. “Biden was laughing at Ryan,” she said. “Something about malarkey. It didn’t seem like Biden was taking it seriously.”
Morning-after conversations in this working-class town (population: 15,000) about 35 miles east of Des Moines illustrate the difficulty of instantly scoring debates. What often gets through to voters are the snippets and sound bites rather than the full Debate Night in America viewing experience. Voters like Rodgers, a committed Barack Obama Democrat, are also adept at separating their judgments as TV critics from their political allegiance.
At Uncle Nancy’s Coffee House, on the town square right across the street from the 1911 Jasper County Courthouse, I entered just in time to hear a derisive crack about Biden from a woman in her late 60s: “I thought it was disrespectful. Joe with all that malarkey business.”
The woman, who would not reveal her name, is part of a floating Newton coffee klatch in which one of the cardinal rules is “never talk politics.” But Biden was so exasperating to this loyal Republican that she violated protocol not knowing that a reporter was sitting nearby.
For a century, Newton was synonymous with Maytag, until 2006 when the washing-machine company was acquired by Whirlpool. The 1,900-worker plant was soon closed, with many of the jobs shipped to Mexico. But this is an area where blue-collar anger does not automatically translate into Democratic votes. Jasper County closely mirrored the statewide vote in both 2008 (Obama romped home with 54 percent and 53 percent in the county) and 2010 (Republican Terry Branstad won the governorship in a landslide over the Democratic incumbent, Chet Culver).
Carl Repp, a Maytag retiree in his early 60s, expressed exaggerated remorse to his friends at Uncle Nancy’s for choosing the tightly fought VP debate over the tightly fought Thursday night NFL game (won by the Titans over the Steelers 26-23).
“I thought it was a good debate,” Repp said. “I’m a Democrat. I thought Joe did a great job, but I wish that he didn’t interrupt so much.”
Long personal observation, dating back to the 1980 Republican caucuses, suggests that Iowans are nicer than voters in most states. While this is not a statistically verifiable conclusion, it would partly explain the morning-after obsession with Biden’s debate demeanor. Another theory, of course, is that Biden’s debate dominance may have been self-defeating.
Most mornings around 8 a.m., Repp shares coffee with Randy Wagner, another Maytag retiree, and Curt Brass, a police officer. Wagner is a disgruntled Democrat who jokes that he’s leaning towards Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad magazine icon, for president. But, in truth, Wagner admitted that he almost certainly will be voting for Obama.
“I don’t like Mitt Romney and what he stands for,” Wagner said. But while the Democrats can get Wagner’s vote, they can’t inspire him to watch the debates.
The 39-year-old Brass, who served two tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq, is part of that rare species of undecided voters who are eagerly sought by political campaigns and wayward reporters. And, yes, Brass watched every minute of the VP debate.
“I thought Ryan held his own – and I wanted to see how he would do up against the more experienced Biden,” Brass said. “I thought that Biden was a bit theatrical with his scowling and his smirking and his laughter.”
Despite the glib stereotypes about the politics of police officers and Marines, Brass voted for Obama in 2008. But he said, “I’ve been disappointed with him because I don’t see how the economy is changing.”
On the other hand, Brass sees the Republicans as equally culpable because of their obstinate opposition in Congress. Brass also cynically noted that Romney had signed gun-control legislation as Massachusetts governor but became a passionate supporter of the National Rifle Association once he began running for president.
The vice-presidential debate, for all its entertainment value, did little to clarify the presidential race for Brass, although he did say, “I like Biden because even when he puts his foot in his mouth, he means it.”
Trying to divine his leanings, I asked Brass the age-old if-the-election-were-held-today question.
“If the election were held today,” he replied, “I’d write in Curt Brass.”