Behind the facade of state political campaigns, humanity often breaks out

AMERICAN political campaigns are two-faced. Onstage, the candidate talks about Serious National Issues. The party faithful cheer. Flag-waving democracy is at work.

Backstage, it's a different picture. Political campaigns are traveling circuses - mad dashes through the countryside, where the unforeseen happens an unscripted humanity breaks out.

You glimpse it in southern West Virginia, when Gov. Gaston Caperton stops his campaign RV at a roadside phone booth. (Even the governor has to use a pay phone when his mobile set won't work.) You see it at a Missouri county fair, when a farm woman breaks down crying as she tells her family's troubles.

The best spot to view a campaign is in its airplane.

It's Friday morning, and so that must be Missouri drifting by below. This fly-around with the six Democrats for statewide office is part of my two-week swing through four states with a Monitor photographer.

Beside me is Geri Rothman-Serot, the underdog Democratic candidate for the United States Senate from Missouri. We talk about the budget deficit, health care, and women in politics.

But the most interesting topic is her treasurer. This is the second plane trip in his life and he turns various shades of green as the eight-seater craft takes off. He maintains himself admirably, despite the jokes.

We eat our Dunkin' Donuts in peace.

Food is a critical campaign issue. Candidates constantly munch on snacks of the worst kind: processed crackers and unnaturally colored chips. They grab potato salad outside the football game or cold sandwiches in no-name airports.

National defense may preoccupy candidates when they're on the ground. At 15,000 feet, it's cheese curls and a soft drink.

Hopscotching around the countryside like this might sound glamorous. It's actually quite grueling.

For every precious minute of real campaigning - shaking hands and giving speeches - there's at least an hour of lost time. Candidates spend inordinate hours riding in cars and hopping planes. It seems they are always getting in or out of some mode of transportation or standing on a podium watching someone else give a stump speech.

All these events require meticulous advance planning. Campaigns have full-time schedulers. Press people hand out itineraries that are scary in their precision. Driving times are sometimes estimated to the minute.

The flight schedule reads: "Wheels up at 7:15 a.m." I envision the wheels of the plane lifting off the tarmac at precisely that moment.

The reality is much different. "Wheels up at 7:15" really means "Show up at 7:10 and we'll try to leave by 7:30." Politicians were born to be late. It makes it easier to say goodbye.

Americans like to make fun of campaigns. It's fashionable these days to debunk their message and criticize their cost. I trust - or maybe I just hope - that it's all a facade: that behind all the image-mongering, candidates stand for their beliefs; that behind their nouveau cynicism, voters still cherish the ideals that drive the democratic process.

You can still find respect from voters on the road in the heartland. At least, I think you can.

I'll never forget landing in St. Joseph, Mo., and caravaning to an event with the Democratic state ticket.

It must have been a sight: all those candidates in a long line of cars and vans heading slowly down the two-lane country road. Cars coming the opposite direction not only stopped, they got off the road in deference.

"Look!" said our driver. "They think it's a funeral." I knew the punchline but a Kansas City reporter beat me to it. "I guess we'll find out Nov. 3," he quipped.

Even the candidates laughed.

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