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Their field of dreams: A vacation with the candidates

Iowa, New Hampshire become tourist destinations for politicos

Visitors trek through the Iowa State Fair during rainy conditions Aug. 12 in Des Moines. This year’s fair drew a string of presidential candidates — and with them scores of tourists looking to see the contenders up close. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
Visitors trek through the Iowa State Fair during rainy conditions Aug. 12 in Des Moines. This year’s fair drew a string of presidential candidates — and with them scores of tourists looking to see the contenders up close. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
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Art Esquibel’s first real vacation in 15 years was not spent enjoying sunset walks along the beach, a piña colada by the pool or camel rides in the desert.

The 65-year-old businessman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, chose instead to spend it at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, where he set up a camping chair in a field to watch Democratic presidential candidates deliver their pitches.

Esquibel is just one of a number of Democrats playing political tourist, choosing to spend their summer breaks in the company of their party’s presidential candidates.

“I haven’t had time off in years, and I took six days to go see the candidates up close,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think I’ve taken six days off in 15 years.”

But given next year’s “critical election,” Esquibel said, it was important for him to try to get up close with the candidates and make an informed choice in the primaries.

Candidates are spending millions of dollars to impress voters in the first two states to make their choices in the presidential primary season — Iowa and New Hampshire. The candidates gather in those states during the summer, making those locales ideal for political tourists to witness a part of the highly contested race.

Iowa, which kicks off the primary season with caucuses scheduled for early February, is hosting the Democratic candidates in appearances across the state, all delivering impassioned speeches as they try to prove themselves best suited to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

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For years the Iowa State Fair has attracted such candidates almost magnetically, and because of that also has attracted voters seeking to vet their politicians, eat fried food and enjoy the other exhibits on offer, including the famous 600-pound cow made of butter.

“I’m a political guy, and the state fair was a chance to see the candidates in a very personal way. Next year is crucial, and I wanted to hear them speak in an intimate setting,” Esquibel said. “But I also had a holiday and a marvelous time.”

His daughter Jennifer, 43, who also is from Albuquerque and has followed politics with him since she was 3, also took a couple of days off work, even missing her children’s first day at school to attend the fair.

She said she was “heartened to see so much talent in the Democratic Party.”

“It was really enjoyable, there was a core group of us travelers who were there just to hear the candidates,” she said.

“Part of why I used my holiday to take this big action is because who we choose to stand against Trump is so critical,” she said. “But it was also a unique opportunity to take a trip with my dad.”

The fair attracted dedicated politicos and registered voters from across the globe.

Brian Fisher, 65, retired from Silicon Valley to Alicante, Spain, in 2018. Last month, he returned to the United States to attend the Iowa State Fair.

Fisher, who can use an absentee ballot next year to vote in the primaries, said the trip was in part motivated by “patriotic duty” and also “fun.”

Speaking afterward on the phone from Alicante, he said: “I thought this would be a great time to go as the election is next year and there are so many Democrats running.”

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“I thought this was a unique idea, but there were hardly any Iowans actually there. It was people from all over the country doing the same thing. I was very surprised.”

“You formed a bit of a club, trading notes and stories,” he added. “It made me feel better about my country because the people were so smart.”

Fisher conceded that he also had enjoyed the fair’s culinary delights, which included lots of fried food.

“Horrible things like deep-fried bacon balls, all the food your mom would never let you eat,” he said.

New Hampshire is another key early state in the Democratic race — the first one to hold a primary, traditionally eight days after Iowa’s caucuses — and one voter there said she had chosen to spend her entire summer vacation following Joe Biden’s campaign as a volunteer.

Catherine Johnson, a retired 59-year-old, moved to Florida from New Hampshire two years ago. But she came home for the politics.

“I’m having the time of my life,” she said while handing out campaign material at a Biden rally in Keene. “Right now my job is handing out stickers. I did two events in Hanover yesterday, and I’m just working tirelessly.”

“I actually just extended my summer vacation an extra month so I can continue to work on the campaign. I just think this is the most important election, and I’m seeing all of the candidates come through here. For me, at the moment, it’s still got to be Joe Biden.”

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Because of the global ramifications of the election, international attention also is being showered on the two relatively small states. Standing in the queue for a Biden rally in Keene was Gabriel Gouvea, 29, a Brazilian student at Keene State College who was as excited about the event as the registered Democrats around him, who had traveled from New York.

“I am a Democrat by heart,” Gouvea said. “Although this is an American presidential campaign, it will have an impact all over the world. I think it’s very important we all follow this race closely.”

“I obviously won’t be voting, but I am here to get to know how the whole system works in America, and this is my first political rally. In these times we are living, the whole world is liable for what happens in the future.”

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