Guy Rundle and Vermin Supreme (Photo: Christine Balquist) 

We were all in Cafe on the Park, the sprawling breakfast bar in the foyer of the Radisson in Manchester, New Hampshire — an ’80s behemoth, all white pillars and atriums, the whole of the US news media camped here, when the word came through. It was whispered somewhere upstairs, in one of the overhanging offices where AP and Univision had set themselves up, it bounced down the stairs to the sunken conversation pit where CNN and PBS were shoved together, ricocheted across to JD’s Bar and Grill, a faux-western hellhole where NBC was airing from. It finally landed in the cafe, where the news crews drop in and hang out while they wait to be sent out to the next deathful occasion, with Carly Fiorina appearing at a cupcake cafe or Chris Christie breaking down in tears at an auto-parts shop, begging people to vote for him. It looks like an embassy under siege in a war zone: not enough tables, dirty coffee cups everywhere, sudden camaraderie of people who will never meet again, sirens and bombers overhead, etc.

By Monday, it has also become like some creepy fancy-dress party, as the celebrity anchors jet in to do their piece. No candidate will ever be seen here, unless they’re coming to do an NBC interview. Trump, appearing today, was made up in the kitchen of JD’s, the bouffant hair just visible as the doors swung back and forth, and paraded out, just behind a red-jacketed waiter bearing a plate of lobster tails — but for the rest it looks like the MGM canteen.

When I stumbled in through the snow this morning, Andrea Mitchell was laughing at a joke being told by Mika Brzezinski (daughter off Zbigniew), while Chris Matthews talked to Joe Scarborough. (I know, I know, but they’re famous if you’re a political junkie). They look smaller than they are on TV, everyone really does. It’s like that Edward Hopper knockoff, where Marilyn, Elvis and Bogie appear in Nighthawks. It also explains much about how news and politics is made.

They were all gone by mid-afternoon, and the camos and soundies had started to drift in, talking trash about the various candidates, the “goombahs” — Christie’s entourage, who look like Trump’s crew but fatter and shorter, like they were in the wrong aspect ratio — and the “sorority”, the flock of angular Ivy League girls who intern for Carly Fiorina — and that inexhaustible topic, the wackness of the Ben Carson campaign.

“After the debate entrance I thought he couldn’t–‘

“But he did–”

“The victory party …”

“On Sunday …”

“Now, he’s sent out an invitation to join him for Valentine’s Day …”

“To who?”

“To everyone, man, to everyone.”

Then someone came down and motioned someone over and talked in a low voice in a flustered sort of way, and he came back and grabbed his gear, and said sotto voce: “You won’t believe who’s back in second spot …”

“Cruz …”

“Bush …”

“No.”

That was the takeaway of the day before the primaries, heard about, ohhhhhh, four minutes before the rest of the world. In the days before the debate, he’d been averaging a consistent, and extraordinary 19-point lead over Rubio, the second runner, up around the mid-30s, his largest lead being a solid University of Massachusetts poll giving him a 22-point lead. Jeb remained at a steady average of 10% of over the three days to Monday. Fiorina was the only one with a sudden jump, from 2.4 to 4.5%.

But on Monday, the Gravis poll gave Bush 14%, and it was this result that was going round the foyer.

By his solid performance in last Saturday’s debate, and Rubio’s terrible one, Jeb is back in the game. There’s no question about it, he did sound more authoritative on the night, when Rubio sounded whiny, and Christie sounded like Rubio owed him money and they were both in an alley behind a tavern and only one of them had a tyre iron.

Bush’s takedown of Trump on “eminent domain” (government seizure of property) got a big reaction in the propertarian, sorry libertarian, state. More than anything, it exposed Trump as “not one of them”. Socialised medicine, talking with Putin, “a lot more than waterboarding” … none of these were enough to faze them, but property?! That’s another thing.

People immediately started interviewing each other — what does this mean for Bush’s chances?, etc — but we were interrupted by the triumphant arrival of Vermin Supreme, a perpetual candidate of decades standing, who tours the primary in a wizard’s costume and an elongated boot on his head, largely on a platform of giving everyone a free pony, a policy that puts him closer to the political centre than Bernie Sanders. (I’m surprised Hillary hasn’t made that joke already.)

Supreme’s tour round the facilities came at the same time as a pro-Democrat, really pro-Hillary, flash mob started off a dance in the middle of the foyer to Pharrell’s Happy — which tells you all you need to know about the character of that campaign, there must be a flavour beyond vanilla — into which he inveigled himself with gusto, doing the Thriller dance, and generally giving it a bit of a Woodstocky flavour, which, since this is the last ’60s election, seemed appropriate. Worth it, if for nothing else, for the look of disgust on the faces of the political pros and spinners hanging around, strictly juniors — 19-year-olds in blue suits and red ties, Cruzistas in tan.

“Hey, Vermin, I hear there’s an old ’60s cliche running in this election, and as well as Bernie*, there’s you as well.”

“That is the truth.”

“How’s the campaign going?”

“Everyone’s in favour of free ponies … except Christie. We went to meet Christie at Cactus Jack’s and he said no to free ponies …”

There you go. Late arvo, the camos came in, dusted in snow, exhausted. Every candidate has ploughed extra events into the last two days, the venues including Blake’s restaurant, the Elks Lodge, BeanTowne coffee house, Turbocam Systems, Omni Components, the Pinkerton Academy, the Manchester Greek Orthodox Church, the Verizon Arena and the Tuckaway Tavern, to name but a few. Three, four events a day, crews haring round in case any of them meltdown, take a hostage, and it’s not on camera. Save for Hillary, who went to Flint, Michigan, yesterday, a way of declaring defeat and to one-up Bernie Sanders’ appearance — with Larry David — on Saturday Night Live. Everyone’s frantic, but Jeb won the day, and as I left, I reflected on how weird, but not at all so, it would be if this became a Clinton-Bush contest after all.

And then — fuck it — on the way out of the Cafe in the Park, I nipped in to grab a drinkable coffee from the espresso bar next door and queuing in front of me was Bill Kristol. Bill Kristol, belted into a pistachio raincoat, smaller than you even imagine him being smaller, that grin on his face like Jack Nicholson’s rendition of the Joker, only more so in real life. One of those moments. For years I have dreamt of how I would taunt Bill Kristol for having landed the GOP with Sarah Palin, and started the party’s spiral into annihilating populism. All those years watching him on news shows and his smug propter-hoc self-exculpations.

There he was, getting his latte — yes, Bill Kristol, son of the father of neoconservatism Irving Kristol, drinks lattes — and I summoned up my nerve and said: “Fuelling up for the Bernie rally, Bill?” And we shared a chuckle. Because that’s what happens when you can see the eyes of their whites. That’s the Manchester effect. Thus does part of the world chose which man or woman should have the power to destroy the whole of it, snowed in on the Cafe on the Park, 24 hours before the New Hampshire primary.

*I actually said Hillary, but it reads cruel.

Additional research and writing by Christine Balquist.

Peter Fray

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