Who's running this campaign?
Is it just me, or has the campaign process started to take a subtle turn?
What we usually have happening is presidential candidates rolling into Iowa towns, on their own schedules, reciting their carefully practiced spiels full of superficial cliches and buzzwords, shaking hands for the photo op *insert golf applause* and back on the bus.
We tend to be so starstruck at the brush with political celebrity that we don't ask or expect much.
Dress sharp but not too formal, smile warmly, tell us how beautiful our town is, pose for a couple of pictures for the locals to share on Facebook. Make a few broad-stroke promises that both they and we full well know are full of crap; that's the game. You know the stuff - I'll make college affordable for everyone, end poverty, seal the borders, defeat terrorism, restore morality, cause everyone to agree on everything, make everyone heterosexual, it won't cost anything and I'll have that done by Tuesday afternoon of the first week.
I've heard the same candidate give the same speech, word for word, three times... each crowd believing they've just hear earth-shattering revelations.
There are usually no questions and if there is, they are wimpy softballs served up by the party faithful, or queries glossed over with a diversionary heartwarming story from the candidate's childhood. Ask a hard one, and the handler looks at his watch - "Oh, going to be late to the next appearance, thanks for coming out!"
In short, we've gotten what they want to give, or what they think we want to hear. A few stats, couple of jokes, I care about the middle class, let's make America great again, so vote for me so I can at least finish top five and get some cushy job as ambassador to someplace warm.
So how are things changing?
Ever so slowly, it seems, we, the people, are beginning to take charge. Imagine that. We're starting to tell the candidates what we want addressed, the questions we want answered. The first, very tentative steps toward the electorate taking control of the campaign process.
Two weeks ago, the Iowa State Fair poll came as a wake-up call - a lot of "big name" candidates flopped big time. The message would seem to be, that past political success or family politicial pedigree isn't enough to stay on top any more.
Last week, Iowa GOP county chairs, including our own, took the unprecedented step of holding a media call themselves - not to put over the party platform or their candidate of choice, but to demand that their own candidates produce some meaningful and reasonable plan for immigration reform. They are rather defying their own party powers to take matters into their own hands, and speaking their own minds.
So, the lambs begin to take the lions by the scruff and shake them a bit...
And on Saturday, a forum was hosted in Storm Lake to force a real discussion of immigrant issues, with every candidate invited multiple times by organizers and student groups at BVU.
Now, if you're running for office, an event like this means that a couple of catch phrases aren't going to get you over. You would need to actually know the issues and have some real proposals to talk about to avoid being outed and embarrassed. You'd have to be ready to face questions and a panel of people who actually know what they are talking about.
Again, an example of the people beginning to drive the political discussion, not the candidates.
Only two of the 24 or so announced hopefuls decided to show up - and not one of the 18 Republicans. Longshots Lincoln Chafee and Martin O'Malley sounded properly progressive, charming and practiced, as one would expect from candidates who have been state governors.
The host of the program went easy on the candidates who were not there - saying only that it would have been "interesting" to hear from them.
I'll be a little more blunt. They're chicken.
Now let me give benefit of the doubt. It's possible a few of them actually had prior commitments that could not possibly be broken. But having covered many campaigns, I doubt it. Most of the time, candidates announce an appearance anywhere from a few hours to a week or two ahead. This event was announced way back in early June.
A chance to speak before a crowd of 400-plus, leaders of both parties in Iowa, organizations representing the prized Latino vote, and a veritable convention of camera-toting media in the all-important first caucus state? Candidates who often find themselves begging for attention from an uninterested handful of people on lunch hour at the local cafe or pizza place would chew off their own right leg to be in such a ripe environment - if they weren't deathly afraid of it.
If the candidates had wanted to be there, make no mistake, they would have been.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, et al, where were you Saturday when Iowa was tackling one of the most important issues of our era in this country for you?
They had better start to read the handwriting on the wall. People are starting to demand substance from the campaign, and the candidates who want to remain viable had better start delivering.
The forum participant who impressed me most was the one I agreed with the least - Tamara Scott, the outspoken GOP national committee representative from Iowa. Representing the hard-line lock-em-out, throw-em-out ideology, she stepped in at the last moment, when northwest Iowa Republican political Sam Clovis dropped out after taking a job with Trump.
Tossing yourself into a conversation that is clearly aimed in the opposite direction, facing panelists and a crowd that largely isn't on your side, with little chance to prepare, takes guts. The kind that a whole lot of presidential candidates apparently didn't have. She did a fine job expressing the conservative side of this issue, and the conversation would have been very one-sided and vastly less effective without her.