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Pasta with a helping of campaign gossip

Des Moines eateries become informal headquarters at night.

December 31, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — On a recent evening at Lucca -- a downtown restaurant renowned for its gnocchi -- the state's Democratic governor, Chet Culver, walked in with a half-dozen friends and took a table in the back. Moments later, his wife, Mari, joined them, fresh from speaking at a John Edwards event. At the front, a Democratic power broker worked the room for Barack Obama. He warmly greeted journalists and political volunteers before sitting down to bend the ear of his dinner companion, a prominent newspaperman.

Just a few days before Thursday's first-in-the-nation presidential contest, politics and its practitioners dominate Des Moines night life.

At Lucca, it's so busy that waiters earn twice the tips they did a few weeks ago, each taking home more than $200 every night, said Cecilia Benetti. But the waitress said they were careful to try to keep their conversations with the diners focused on food. "I try not to mix work and politics," Benetti said.

A few days earlier, Hillary Rodham Clinton's partisans discovered that Benetti supports Obama and jokingly warned she wouldn't get a tip. (She did.)

In other ways, too, Des Moines after dark can be treacherous to navigate.

Although campaign workers collide at many eateries, including Lucca, they have carved up the capital's culinary geography, which centers on a five-block area, staking claim to a favorite bar or restaurant as after-hours headquarters.

"Walking around downtown on a Friday or Saturday night is like walking past one big row of fraternity houses -- there's the Clinton house, there's the Obama house," said M.E. Sprengelmeyer, the Washington bureau chief for the Rocky Mountain News, who moved to Des Moines in April to cover the first presidential contest.

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Rival hangouts

Where the campaign workers choose to dine and drink is no frivolous matter. As any image consultant can tell you: You are where you eat.

Located in the up-and-coming East Village across the street from the Obama headquarters, Lucca is a favorite with the Illinois senator's seasoned operatives. Like the candidate, it's a newcomer appearing without pretense. (The restaurant opened in 2006.) But the bare brick walls and simple wooden tables belie a sophisticated operation in the kitchen.

While former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer, worked the crowd at Lucca for Obama, Edwards volunteers -- wearing stickers with his name in red and blue -- were having dinner at the Continental, a few doors away. They seemed excited. More than a thousand people had attended the event for the former North Carolina senator, where Culver had spoken.

Less than a mile away, the Royal Mile, an inexpensive downtown pub, had been taken over by younger Obama staffers who were vigorously debating politics. With less pocket money than the older operatives at Lucca, they sustained themselves on beer, bar snacks and hope. And a bit of gossip.

"What's up with him canceling?" inquired one young woman of an even younger-looking man, referring to an abrupt change in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign schedule.

"He's feeling the heat," said the man with a knowing look, adding by way of explanation: "Bhutto." (Critics have charged the Republican candidate with having a tenuous grip on foreign policy after statements he made about former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination.)

Although the Obama staffers have informally claimed the Royal Mile as their hangout, young Clintonites have occasionally occupied the separate barroom upstairs.

"It's like the Sharks and the Jets from 'West Side Story,' " said Christopher Diebel, 26, a marketing director and Des Moines native. "It's the same bar, but they don't interact."

Just around the corner, Clinton's camp has taken over Azalea, a more established restaurant in a restored Art Deco building.

Typically a little older than Obama's flock, the Clintonites are easy to spot: They wear almost identical clothes -- well-pressed shirts and chinos -- and appear as comfortable in upscale restaurants as they might in the hallways of power.

The senator from New York has visited the restaurant several times, seated at an upstairs table away from other diners. When Sprengelmeyer bumped into her recently at Azalea, she enthusiastically shared her position on the cheesecake. (She's for it.)

Though candidates often meet voters over food during the day -- the campaign trail is often a string of diners and coffee shops -- at night there is little interaction. "Everyone stays in the same little bubble that they brought with them from Washington," Sprengelmeyer said.

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The out-of-towners

As Beltway types have descended on their city, taking over eateries and watering holes like a swarm of locusts, many Iowans have stayed home.

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