CLEVELAND — It all began this week for Iowa’s delegation to the Republican National Convention at a joint called The Bourbon Street Barrel Room. Makes some sense, I suppose, in an election season that’s driving many an American to reach for a bottle, or maybe a barrel.
It was a Sunday evening event hosted by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in Cleveland’s historic Tremont neighborhood, with plenty of barbecue. I believe it was pork. Also fitting.
“We’re going to make it happen. We’re going to make them squeal,” Ernst told the assembled delegates and media, reprising her famous, cutting tag line of a 2014 campaign ad. “We’re going to make those Democrats squeal, that’s for certain.”
The crowd loved it, with some holding up their smartphones to snap photos or shoot video. Gov. Terry Branstad was there, as well as Iowa’s senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and other party leaders and luminaries. But this is Ernst’s year and it’s her delegation, filled with conservative activists who helped her break Iowa’s shameful congressional glass ceiling.
Even Grassley knows he’s playing second fiddle these days.
“I hang on to her as close as I can so I can get as famous as she is,” Grassley joked. “She laughs about it, but she doesn’t know I’m very intrigued with the idea of getting better known, through her.”
This month, Ernst was widely reported to be on Donald Trump’s vice presidential short list. On Monday night at the convention, Ernst, who gave the Republican response to Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech, landed a prime time speaking slot. She’s been invited to give a pep talk to staff working for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who faces a critical battle this fall in the fight to control the Senate.
Her convention week schedule is packed with events. Heck, just stopping to take photos with delegates will eat up much of the week.
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“This is my first one,” Ernst said of her convention trip. “It’s go big or go home.”
But her toughest job this week will be in convincing us that Trump, who famously said he gets his military advice from watching “the shows” on TV, will make America more secure. Her speech Monday night was billed as a talk on national security.
“I feel comfortable with our nominee,” said Ernst, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years in the Iowa National Guard. “And that comes out of having that one-on-one conversation with him. He does understand the implications of our role in the world. And he is not an isolationist. But what he wants to make sure is we’re putting America first, that we’re keeping America safe.”
But what about the “shows?”
“I think he’s a little deeper than he lets people on,” Ernst said.
Ernst spoke with reporters and gave a 10-minute talk without mentioning Trump by name. She talked of a need for “the right leadership” and a “strong leader,” but no direct praise. Trump did get a pair of references in Ernst’s convention text.
And this Trump-is-deeper-than-he-seems argument is becoming a recurring theme here. He’s just mugging for the media, to generate buzz. Behind the scenes, one-on-one, he’s different. Seems entirely plausible, if you take your bourbon by the barrel.
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