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Two L.A. voters hit the trail

Richard and Leslie Brenner wanted to go beyond sound bites. They wanted their politics up close. That meant a trip to Iowa.

January 03, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — A presidential election is a conversation about the nation's future, but all Richard Brenner was hearing in Van Nuys were fragments, disconnected bits and pieces.

He wanted more. He yearned for a lively discussion, some policy, a vision. While presidential candidates swarmed through early primary and caucus states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in the nominating process, they often ignored California.

"By the time we get to see people in California, it's already decided," he said.

Brenner was frustrated. Then, as he Rollerbladed one Sunday in Balboa Park, it came to him: If the candidates wouldn't come to Van Nuys, he would go to the candidates. He would go to Iowa to experience them, uncut, plunging himself into the middle of the conversation that he couldn't hear from home.

He would become a political tourist.

Brenner scoured the Internet for a new winter coat -- his first in more than 20 years -- and settled on a brown bomber jacket with a thick woolly lining. He bought boots and plane tickets. He read up on the candidates' positions.

On Saturday, five days before the Iowa caucuses, he got up at 3 a.m., thoughts of the impending flight making it impossible to sleep. To get to Iowa, Brenner, 53, had to defy his fear of flying and his dislike of the cold. In Southern California, the temperature hovered around 70. In Des Moines, it was 25 degrees and dropping.

Brenner's wife, Leslie, 58, was traveling with him. Both Democrats, the couple primarily wanted to see their party's front- runners; neither had preferences among the contenders.

"There's a lot to be said for being in the mix, to get out there and look at it, to know what's going on in your country," she said.

After checking in at a hotel near the golden-domed Capitol in downtown Des Moines, the couple drove in their rented Jeep to the first political event: a John Edwards rally at East High School two miles away.

Getting out of the car, Richard tugged his jacket against his neck and cursed the cold. (Bald and energetic, Brenner bears a passing resemblance to Yul Brynner but jokes that he looks more like the Addams Family's Uncle Fester.)

At 7 p.m., the Brenners were half an hour early, but the gym was already packed. More than 1,000 people had come to hear the former North Carolina senator talk. The couple found two seats close to the podium, but behind Edwards.

Mari Thinnes Culver, wife of Iowa's Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, and Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife, introduced Edwards, who wore a blue suit and hiking boots.

The Brenners listened intently -- Leslie with her head cocked to one side, Richard at times cupping his hand around his ear -- as Edwards talked, mixing the personal (his grandparents' humble circumstances in a mill town) with the political (fighting corporate greed). He described the upcoming general election as "the great moral test of our generation."

After the 40-minute speech, Edwards took questions from the crowd on healthcare, education and medical malpractice.

A middle-age woman who wore an orange "Save Darfur" T-shirt got teary as she talked briefly of the plight of people there.

Several times, Edwards' wife whispered in his ear, apparently to remind him of a particular point or message.

After Edwards finished speaking, people gathered around him. The Brenners weren't interested in fighting their way to meet the candidate, though Richard had enjoyed every moment of the spectacle -- crying babies, cheering steelworkers, John Fogerty blasting through the speakers. But more than anything, he delighted in hearing the candidate in person.

"Watching him on TV, I thought he was slick," said Richard, who saw a different Edwards at the rally. "He told his story, and there was passion in his story."

Half an hour later, Culver walked into the downtown restaurant where the Brenners were having dinner. As she walked by their table, Richard called out: "Nice speech tonight."

She slowed down, smiled and shook his hand before murmuring an appreciation and moving on.

Over chicken livers and salad, the couple dissected their first day as political tourists.

At times, the rally had felt like "a cross between a pure American experience and scenes from 'The Manchurian Candidate,' " said Richard, who is fond of movie metaphors.

"Wow," his wife responded, "what makes you say that?"

Richard said he enjoyed the crowd's enthusiasm but was a bit put off by the lack of diversity as well as the ubiquitous flags. He liked Edwards' apparent willingness to talk about tough subjects such as the security company Blackwater USA, under investigation for a shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead.

Edwards' suggestion that questioning the war in Iraq can also be a form of patriotism -- "I thought was brilliant," Richard said.

"He's not as shallow as I thought," Leslie said.

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