Des Moines — That most mysterious of American creatures - the presidential candidate - retains an aura across much of the country. He's rarely seen. An appearance by Rep. Richard Gephardt still rouses great interest in some parts. But not in Iowa.
``Gephardt?'' asks the Thrifty Car Rental agent at the Des Moines airport. ``We had two of his advance men this morning trying to rent a car.''
They didn't get it?
No, the agent explains. Not authorized to use the campaign's corporate account, they were sent away. ``You've got to watch them like hawks,'' the agent says.
A few miles away, the American Association of Retired Persons stages a midafternoon debate for Democratic candidates. The audience's enthusiasm wanes as the debate goes on. One group even interrupts the proceedings, charging that the candidates have failed to address seniors' most important issue - social security.
If Iowans seem less than awed by presidential candidates, it's an attitude bred of familiarity. ``I've heard Dole, Bush, Simon, Gore,'' says salesman Richard St. Clair.``I'm undecided.''
It's not only the candidates who hurdle thither and yon. Their spouses, parents, children, and assorted relations are also here. Iowa's usually ample 56,290 square miles suddenly seem quite crowded.
For example, in a single half-hour one Friday afternoon at the Des Moines airport last month, Pierre du Pont IV left in one plane, Gov. Michael Dukakis landed in another, and Representative Gephardt's wife, Jane, arrived minutes later in a third.
Iowa is so overrun that one challenge here is to avoid crashing into one's opponents. Both Governor Dukakis and Mrs. Gephardt, for example, headed to the same union hall this particular afternoon. One spoke upstairs, the other greeted union leaders downstairs. After greeting each other in between, they switched floors.
The candidates are dogged by an even larger pool of reporters. A reporter eating lunch in Des Moines spied five newsmen and campaign aides sitting nearby.
Somehow, in the midst of this invasion, Iowans manage to remain calm. Some even get into the act.
At A Taste of Thailand in Des Moines, restaurateur Prasong Nurack shows off his voting booth, ballot box, and his ``T.O.T. poll.'' The survey, which asks patrons questions on everything from their dreams to Jim and Tammy Bakker, also tracks the campaign.
In the latest count, Sen. Paul Simon was leading the Democrats with 35 percent, while Sen. Robert Dole topped the Republicans with 45 percent.