If John McCain somehow pulls it out the bag next Tuesday, it will be thanks to people like Jon Stainbrook.
A former punk rocker and unofficial spokesman for Joe the Plumber, Jon is chair of the Republican Party in Toledo, Ohio, and is giving his all to turn a deep blue county just a little more purple.
Toledo is just not natural McCain territory: a suburb of Detroit, with all the industrial decline that implies, the city is only 11 per cent Republican.
But Stainbrook is running an insurgency, throwing everything he’s got at a campaign to win McCain 38 per cent of the county. If the Republicans do that, they could win Ohio; if they win Ohio, they could win the White House.
And it’s hard not to admire the energy with which Stainbrook is fighting. When we visit his office he’s preparing for an imminent visit from Sarah Palin. And although he’s in the middle of a twenty minute phone call, he’s frantically digging around his desk for t-shirts, stickers, and other campaign materials to wave at us.
At one point he pulls the phone away from his ear and puts it on speaker (‘…but it’s all these private equity guys, all these hedge funds…’ – it’s not clear whether this is about fundraising or the end of capitalism as we know it); Jon flashes me a ‘see what I have to deal with?’ look before going back to his call.
This energy is clearly infectious. A white board lists volunteers next to the number of calls they’ve made, under the headline ‘call heroes’ (Scott is in the lead, with 5170).
Every couple of minutes someone comes in, with money to buy a hat or a bumper sticker or a ticket to the rally. At one point an elderly woman enters, weeping copiously about the imminent Obama regime, and Jon greets her with a cry of, ‘What you worrying about? In Ohio we’re up by two per cent. Someone show her the polls!’ (I’m not sure which poll he means; 24 hours later it hasn’t shown up on realclearpolitics.com.)
Stainbrook’s team are the sweetest, most welcoming and most batshit crazy crowd of people I’ve met in a long time. They tell us they love our accents, ask us what we think of Ohio and do everything they can to make us feel at home. It’s just that they’re living in the mirror universe.
One woman explains at great length to my photographer that global warming is a scam made up by those wicked Democrats. ‘You know Lake Erie used to be a glacier. Nobody minded when that melted,’ she says. And anyway, drilling in Alaska would be good for the animals: ‘The pipeline gives them something warm to huddle up to.’
In the next room, meanwhile, a long time party worker is telling me about Barack Obama’s tax plans. ‘It’s socialism, plain and simple,’ he says. ‘He said he wants to redistribute wealth – I don’t know what else you call that but socialism.’
At this point the security guard, who’s eating bean curd out of a tin, pipes up with, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I got hit by a train?’ When we laugh, he snaps back, ‘Hey – I don’t lie!’
‘Then what happened to that roll of quarters yesterday?’ says Jon Stainbrook. He laughs in an oddly familiar way – ‘Heheheh’ – and points to a portrait photograph on the wall. ‘That’s my George W. Bush. Wanna see my John McCain?’ He brings his arms up to chest level and wheezes, ‘My friends… My friends… We can do this…’
The party worker looks like he’s panicking about the impression this is leaving. ‘What you worrying about?’ replies Jon. ‘He’s laughing, look, he’s laughing!’
When we announce we’re leaving, everyone acts disappointed and asks us if we won’t stay for the evening. But there’s general agreement that Toledo is not a great town for motels (‘There’s one that’s cheap, but the ladies go room to room, if you know what I mean,’ someone says), and a TV crew is arriving to talk about Joe the Plumber, so we are quickly forgotten.
Everyone’s been so warm and so kind that, even though I’m backing the other guy and disagree with almost every word they’ve said, I find myself hoping that their hard work pays off in Toledo. That said, I know what my photographer means when, on the road out of town, he asks, ‘Why do I feel like I’m running for the border?’
At that point we join the Ohio turnpike, but we head east when we mean to head west. Half hour later we’re back in Toledo and have paid 50c for the privilege.