OMAHA, Neb. — At 8:26 p.m. Monday night, less than twelve hours before the polls open here, a Yale graduate running for the United States Senate is pacing the parking lot of a Wal-Mart on 72nd Street and Pine.
It is a pleasant evening. Despite autumn, estival winds are generating a calm cool. Despite darkness, electronic signs flood the area with a lucific glow. Despite his handsome smile, Scott Kleeb’s GRD ‘06 friendly words are not making one voter very happy.
“Can I bother you?” Kleeb asks.
“Are you voting tomorrow?”
“I’ll consider it.” A chuckle.
Kleeb, ever determined, presses on. No bite, though: the man would not look up from packing groceries for more than a jiffy to speak to a fellow Nebraskan — a fellow Nebraskan running for the third-most-powerful seat in the land, that is.
But Kleeb, who is down in polls but up in spirits, does not mind. For a change candidate who shaped his quest for a Senate seat around the message that politicians, like his opponent Mike Johanns, have not listened to real-voter voices; who transformed a pickup truck signed by hundreds of Nebraskans into the centerpiece of his campaign; who lives for long (too long, his staffers like to jokingly remind him) conversations and big challenges, courting voters in front of a Wal-Mart on the night before the election is, quite simply, natural.
The 33-year-old Yale graduate, who made a name for himself in New Haven as the Cold War teaching assistant who wore cowboy boots, is in the final hour of a campaign that began nine months ago — or, by another count, several years ago when he tossed his perennial cowboy hat in the ring for a congressional seat in 2006. (He lost.)
It is a peculiar final hour, though. Only two assistants are in tow. Only a dozen or so votes, if that, will likely be gleaned from this hour. Only one reporter — yours truly — is observing. (And as a campaign staffer pointed out, a college newspaper in Connecticut will probably not have any measurable impact on voter decisions in Omaha).
The next car over presents another opportunity: “I’m gonna do the same thing to you as I did to those guys,” Kleeb begins.
At 8:27 p.m., Paul DeleHanty, the campaign’s online communications director, makes a confession to the News: “It’s hard,” he says, “to do retail politics in a parking lot.”
Hard, yes, but for Kleeb, also cathartic, characteristic — and, he insists, potentially helpful. (“You never know.”)
Plus, as DeleHanty reminded the News, it does not hurt the ego to encounter voters who are planning to press down a lever with your name on it. “Candidates,” he whispers at 8:31 p.m., leaning in, “have feelings, too.”
If that is the case, then Kleeb is now turning from blue to blissful: as he warms up, more and more voters are stopping to chat, promising support, exuding bubbling glee.
Voters like Thanh Le, who describes himself as “not Joe the Plumber but Thanh the Hairdresser.”
“You rock,” he tells Kleeb. Then Le cajoles the candidate’s body man, Wisconsin native Kevin Beiging, into handing over his vermilion-red Scott Kleeb t-shirt. In the process, Le removes his own shirt to put on his new souvenir, revealing a tattoo around his belly — a heart emblazed with fire and dragon eyes — as well as a newfound love for the former member of Rumpus’ 50 Most Beautiful list.
“I love Democrats!”
Several minutes go by. Le poses for a photograph with the candidate, complains about George W. Bush ‘68 and says that although both the president and Kleeb went to Yale, the latter is “much cooler.” As he enters his truck, Le says he can envision Kleeb winning tomorrow despite polls that have placed him well behind his opponent. If Kleeb does not, though, Le says he thinks the cattle-ranching college professor will win some day — perhaps even the presidency.
“Yeah, you know what, I’ll pray for him,” he says. (But he also has a question: “What is he doing here? So little time left!”)
Kleeb, meanwhile, several parking spots away, is giving directions over the phone to his wife, Jane, who, as the executive director of Young Voter PAC, is an accomplished politico in her own right. Apparently, Wal-Mart is about to become a family affair.
Not yet, though. Kleeb continues to court voters incessantly as DeleHanty explains why Monday was a “good day.” The campaign zig-zagged the enormous state from Hastings, Neb. to Omaha — Freemont, Lincoln, Wahoo — and encountered, he says, tremendous momentum.
Then, a thought interrupted: “Obama rocks!” Apparently, Kleeb had just convinced someone to support him by noting the similarities between his own platform and that of the Democratic presidential nominee. It is proving difficult to rest merely on his surname; just hours before 8 a.m. Tuesday, name recognition remains a palpable hurdle for Kleeb even in a city ripe with media proliferation — which is no given in the Cornhusker State.
When Kleeb introduces himself to one local student, the response is a frank one: “Who are you?”
Around 9 p.m., Jane Kleeb arrives, her daughter Kora at her feet, her brown buckle belt around her waist, her blue jeans and black shirt offering a cowgirl-meets-New York appearance.
She immediately rushes over to help her husband in the art of “retail politics.” Kora stays behind. Beiging quips, “Go over there and tell them to vote for papa.” Kora stays put for the time being. (As the recently elected second-grade class representative, after all, she has her own political career to worry about.)
At a quarter after 9 p.m., Kleeb faces arguably his greatest challenge yet: a man whose badge identifies him only as “Cecil” and whose visible angst leads into a lengthy tirade against Obama (who is, according to him, a “communist,” among other things not suitable for print).
But in the spirit of his attempt at outreach to independents and Republicans — “McCain-Kleeb supporters,” as they are known — Kleeb achieves the near-impossible after about ten minutes. Citing one of his “Ten Commitments to Serve Nebraska” — that as a senator, he would pay for his own healthcare until all Nebraskans have access to it themselves — Cecil promises his vote, but not before reminding Kleeb that “we,” the voters, “are your boss.”
Maybe. But in the moment, a Wal-Mart assistant manager who emerges from the sliding doors, while sipping a soda, makes sure all know she is the real boss. The Kleeb team has been busted: Campaigning, they are told, is off-limits in the parking lot. (“We just wanted to talk to people, and we thought a lot of people would be here because of your low prices,” explains one staffer before agreeing to leave.)
It is time to go anyway. Election Day is just hours away. The dinner Jane Kleeb made for her husband — Shepherd’s Pie — is getting cold.
But before departing, the candidate and his wife stop for a de-briefing with the News, still the only media presence in the lot. Scott Kleeb echoes his staff: It was “a good day,” he says. As for the last hour? Democracy “is a lot about conversations.”
“I feel good,” Jane Kleeb adds as the one-hour mark approaches. She is walking toward her daughter and husband who are waiting, of course, at the famous Chevy pick-up. “For me, it’s [whether] young voters and African-American voters turn out in the numbers we are expecting them to in Omaha and Lincoln — and can Scott hold his numbers in the third [congressional district]. If those three things happen, then we have a real shot at this.”
Omaha Wal-Mart shoppers might not be on the checklist, but no matter: It is probably better, as they say, not to cram the night before — especially when the die have already been cast.