By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Scripps Howard News Service
July 15, 2005
"This doesn't look like my wife's packing!" he exclaimed.
Inside, he found a bag of dirty laundry and other stuff belonging to some poor guy who was making a connecting flight for Hawaii. The congressman had grabbed the wrong bag when their puddle-jumper landed in Moline, Ill.
That's life on the road for a man hoping to put a scare into the 2008 presidential contenders.
During a three-day barnstorming trip, the Colorado Republican also faced cases of mistaken identity, a mind-numbing schedule of interviews and a swarm of insects in Dubuque that seemed straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Despite all that, Tancredo created a buzz of his own. He got enough standing ovations from hard-core conservative Iowa voters that it should worry any top-tier presidential hopefuls who thought they could get through 2008 without touching the immigration hot button.
Tancredo has visited New Hampshire and now Iowa, testing the waters for a possible presidential run. But the real goal is to turn his pet issue - a hard line on illegal immigration - into something none of the contenders can ignore.
Tancredo found his views an easy sell in front of friendly faces gathered by the Christian Coalition of Iowa. He talked about a national identity under attack, wages at risk and a border so porous he sees it as a welcome mat to would-be terrorists.
After last week's bomb attacks in London, Tancredo drew big applause by calling for the U.S. military to help seal America's borders.
"Isn't it better to stop people before they get here, rather than trying to find them once they get here?" he said at one gathering.
At every stop, Tancredo urged folks to ask tough questions about immigration when presidential hopefuls come to call. "I beg you to ask them about this issue, and do not let them equivocate," he said.
What will they do to secure the borders? Will they use the military if necessary? Will they oppose guest-worker legislation that Tancredo equates with "amnesty" for people who entered the country illegally?
"It has to be a part of the presidential debate," he said.
He preached to standing-room crowds from a backyard porch in Davenport, in a cramped basement in Cedar Rapids, a community center in Cedar Falls and inside a mansion-size log cabin in the affluent suburbs of Dubuque.
Everywhere he went, people asked if he plans to run. Each time came the pat answer: "If we can get no one else to take up the banner, both with their heart and with their lips, then we will do it."
Tancredo has said he is not delusional. He knows he'd have little chance of winning the White House. Still, as he said during a stroll near the Mississippi River: "I'm putting my life in God's hands - and he may have some strange plans."
Back home in Colorado, Tancredo's views on immigration have brought charges that he's an extremist, xenophobe or racist. Even some fellow Republicans say he's unrealistic when he calls for rounding up and deporting all illegal immigrants.
But the closest he came to a challenge in Iowa was at a Christian Coalition event in Cedar Falls, when a local college professor asked him to explain the biblical basis for his hard line on immigration. Tancredo offered a quick interpretation of Bible passages and moved on, saying he prays that God will let him know if he's going in the wrong direction.
Joni Scotter clearly thinks Tancredo is going in the right direction. "I think he's incredible," said the 63-year-old GOP activist, who had tears in her eyes after hugging Tancredo in Cedar Rapids.
"I'd say (Tancredo) is running for president, because when you come to Iowa that's a sure sign," she said. "It's the writing on the wall that says, 'I'm interested.' And we're interested, too."
Barnstorming tested Tancredo's stamina and sense of humor.
In southeastern Iowa, he repeatedly had to explain that he was not Rep. Steve King, the local Republican congressman with whom he shares a striking resemblance. When his small entourage finally arrived in Dubuque in the wee hours Saturday morning, Tancredo was met by a swarm of "mayflies." They made clouds around the streetlights, blanketed parked cars and turned whole stretches of sidewalks gray.
"We need some seagulls," Tancredo shouted. "Where are the seagulls?" A few hours later, he joked about the insect "welcoming committee" during a breakfast gathering.
Even with the trip's lighter moments, there's a serious matter Tancredo has to think about. He knows his flirtation with the presidential race can only go so far before "at a certain point, it gets ugly."
He was alluding to some old news stories back in Colorado that could give national political writers fodder.
That includes a published report that illegal immigrants were part of a contractor's crew that installed the home theater system in his Littleton home - something Tancredo said he had no way of knowing.
And it includes the childhood depression treatments that led to Tancredo's mental-health draft deferment during the Vietnam War.
In a restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Tancredo talked about offering to make public service announcements telling people who suffer from depression: "I know what you're experiencing with depression. You can overcome it. You can live your life."
"I can't live my life worrying about that limitation," Tancredo said. "The other way to look at it is to say, 'America, this is who I am. (Here is) what I've had to go through.' "
The woman behind Tancredo's flirtation with the 2008 presidential race is Bay Buchanan, treasurer of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns and the sister behind conservative commentator Pat Buchanan's presidential runs.
"Tom, to me, is the best grass-roots candidate there is," Buchanan said. "He energizes a real base. He has a cause. He represents an entire movement. The movement is there. The others don't have a movement."
Tancredo is a virtual unknown in Iowa, "But my experience has been that any national political figure who comes to Iowa and says, 'I want to be considered,' gets a fair hearing," said David Yepsen, veteran political writer for the Des Moines Register.
"Single-issue candidates don't fare well, but they do get visibility for their issue, which I assume is what he's really doing, much as, say, Gary Bauer or Pat Robertson once highlighted other social issues like abortion," Yepsen said.
Luana Stoltenberg, for one, said she hopes Tancredo keeps on talking. After a long day driving Tancredo around southeastern Iowa, the local volunteer said, "I think he should try to run."
"I like what he said," Stoltenberg added. "Why not? Everyone else is running."
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