MERRIMACK, N.H. -- As Tom Tancredo meandered through a living room phalanx of supporters, two young brothers squeezed their way forward to meet the long-shot Republican presidential candidate.
"Did you at least get out of some homework coming to this?" Tancredo joked.
"Spelling," the older admitted with a shy smile, twisting in place as he blushed at the attention.
"I knew it!" Tancredo laughed. "I hope it's worth it, but I have to warn you: There's going to be test."
Needless to say, neither a box of No. 2 pencils nor mimeographed quiz sheets were passed around at the end of the evening. If, however, there had actually been a test, the cheat sheet might have looked something like this:
"Open Borders" Synonym: Suicide Pact.
Multiculturalism: Popular cult in late 20th/early 21st Century United States.
"OTM": Shorthand for Other Than Mexican illegal immigrants, many with nefarious purposes. (Tancredo: "They're not all coming here to do jobs Americans won't do, unless you can't find an American to blow up an American city.")
Balkanized: See United States, 2007.
Mecca/Medina: 1) Islamic holy sites; 2) places to aim tactical nuclear weapons at as a deterrent against terrorism. (Tancredo: "What motivates the jihadists? Is it Iran? Is it Saudi Arabia? No. It's Allah.")
Patriot Act: Something sissies worry about. (Tancredo: "People are worried about the Patriot Act? If a dirty bomb or a series of bombs are set off in this country, it's going to make the Patriot Act look like a Sunday school picnic.")
Sunday School Picnic: Social event superior to a dirty bomb.
Yes, there was a touch of apocalypse in the air as Tancredo, encircled by more than thirty solemn people gathered like soldiers around a general at the final battle, detailed a dystopian future in which America, broken economically ("We are importing our own poverty into this country"), disintegrates from within as jihadists send suicide bombers across every ruptured border while unassimilated immigrants who "hold Sharia law above the U.S. Constitution" and "Islamified" Europe applaud.
It may sound like a fairly bleak portrait, but humor was not entirely absent from the proceedings: Tancredo described catching a glimpse of his effigy being burned on the news one evening, a Death to Tancredo sign hung around its neck. "'Death' was spelled wrong," the firebrand Colorado congressman guffawed shaking his head and bending over to slap his knee. "'Tancredo' was spelled right!"
EARLIER, A JUBILANT BILL LESTER had welcomed supporters and the curious alike as his wife Claire collected jackets and motioned to a tempting cookie and soda buffet. A placard in an adjacent sitting room festooned with Tancredo for President posters invited visitors to ponder a quote from erstwhile Nixon biographer Monica Crowley ("[Tancredo] was talking about the festering problem of illegal immigration before it was hip") en route to the living room where In Mortal Danger occupied a place of honor on the mantelpiece and a larger than life Lou Dobbs stared out from a 72-inch television screen.
"He's pretty good," Bill Lester said, nodding at the screen. "No Tancredo, but..."
The Lesters are your textbook all-American family. Comfortably middle-class, they own a beautiful midsized home on a picturesque cul-de-sac. Bill and Claire rise for work -- he in the medical industry, she in the tech field -- before six a.m. and often as not return after six p.m. When one son isn't playing hockey, he's playing lacrosse. When the other son isn't wrestling, he's playing football. They have an extraordinarily sweet dog that did her best to maintain a stiff upper lip while her home was overrun by strangers.
Busy with life, the Lesters have never volunteered for a candidate, much less invited one into their house before tonight.
"I really, truly believe the country is at a crossroads," Bill Lester explained earnestly. "I'm worried about a political correctness in this country that denies us any logical discussion of our problems. So when this guy comes along and talks about the real issues and says what he believes and gets beat up for doing it, you bet I'm going to stand up and do whatever I can for him."
Tancredo has an unusually unguarded, easygoing rapport with his supporters, even for a lower tier presidential candidate. He seems honestly touched by the reception and, sometimes, the adulation he receives. It's a symbiotic relationship, with Tancredo and supporters behaving like members of a super-politicized couple who finish each other's sentences.
"This clash of civilizations is a battle that's been going on for hundreds of years..." Tancredo said at one point.
"1400 years..." someone in the crowd added.
"Right." And do you know what day the hordes were stopped at the Gates of Vienna, Tancredo asked.
"September 11," a voice from the other side of the room answered, as scattered gasps rose up. And back and forth it went for more than an hour, an impressive feat in the context of modern politics, but also a bit disturbing at times given how dark Tancredo's take on the state of the nation/world is. (No one, for example, took issue with the proposal that we hit our Saudi Arabian ally with nuclear weapons to retaliate for a terrorist attack that didn't originate there.)
Such close communion with everyday people is not out of character, according to Tancredo staffers. "I've worked with a lot of candidates all over the country," one of the candidate's advance men said. "Tom's different. He's a real guy. He carries his own luggage. He flies alone, and just calls when he gets in for a ride. There are some state legislators who are more demanding. He's down-to-earth in a unique way for politics."
As Bill Lester watched Tancredo's van pull away that evening, he was in a wistfully similar frame of mind. "He's the kind of guy you wouldn't mind seeing move into your neighborhood," he said. "What other presidential candidate can you say that about?"
SUPPORTERS VEHEMENTLY REJECT any suggestion Tancredo is floundering because he is perceived to be a single-issue candidate and, indeed, the candidate can point to "A" grades from the American Conservative Union, the NRA, National Taxpayers Union, Family Research Council and others. Yet in conversation supporters invariably cite illegal immigration as the wellspring of their affection for Tancredo, rattling off a dizzying array of fears: Illegal immigrants infecting America with smallpox. Illegal immigrant terrorists. Illegal immigrants bankrupting social services. More than one attendee fumed over the local cable company's recent decision to drop a country music station and keep three Spanish language channels. "We're losing the music of our country and keeping stuff we can't even understand," one man complained to Tancredo.
Some of the conviction was visceral, personal. "I came here legally," Diane Lothrop, an emigre from England who, with her husband Chuck, also recently hosted a Tancredo house party, said. "I waited in line for years to become citizen. And if I can do it the right way, so can everyone else." Of course, the average Brit and the average Mexican day laborer have much different needs and resources. This isn't a crowd that would take kindly to, say, Cato Institute studies or Wall Street Journal editorials, though, and many place the blame for Tancredo's lack of buzz not on policy, but mass media.
"If Tancredo loses I'm not going to die or anything," Chuck Lothrop said. "But I'm also not going to just give up on his candidacy because the media tells me he can't win."
STILL, WHILE NONE OF HIS supporters are quite willing to rule out a miracle, at this point both they and their candidate seem to recognize it is unlikely Tom Tancredo will be working out of the West Wing come 2009. "I know, if nothing else," Tancredo said at the beginning of his talk, "our camp has moved this issue and forced my opponents to deal with it." At moments, Tancredo seemed just another observer of the race. "Boy, you can tell the caucus is getting real close," he said at one point. "They're really going after each other." Alas, the Stop Amnesty/Vote Tancredo bumper stickers already seem antiquated. When Tancredo says things like, "I would be a happy camper if this whole process was shrunk down to six weeks," you don't get the impression he's expecting a late surge.
Instead, Tancredo offered another measure of his success. He mused about the early days of his crusade, the hundreds of hours spent on talk radio shows. "I used to ask myself, 'Does anyone care? Is anybody listening?'" He doesn't wonder anymore. The Hillary driver's license flap and his Republican opponents' surprisingly brutal dogfights on sanctuary cities and lawn workers are proof enough. When Tancredo repeated his debate one-liner about the other Republican candidates trying to "out-Tancredo Tancredo," everyone laughed appreciatively, then sighed. Predictably, Tancredo has his doubts as to whether anyone can actually out-Tancredo him. "I love the rhetoric," he said. "But how can we really know who believes in their heart and who is just watching polls?"
As the primary campaign enters its twilight and Tancredo prepares to retire from the congressional seat he's held since 1999, a certain melancholy began to seep in as the evening wound up. "I don't want this conversation to end just because the frontrunners take over," a woman said, her voice strained with emotion. Tancredo paused and looked down for a few moments. "God doesn't say we have to win every battle, but we do have to fight," he said finally, adding. "You can move people. You can move nations. And it starts in rooms like this with people like you.
"You can become so defeatist and just walk away from it all," he continued. "Well, I refuse."
There are worse political epitaphs.
American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.
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