Before the results came

Before the results came out this evening, I went to one campaign event — one at the Clark campaign. The other choice was Lieberman. But, given the direction things seem to be going in, I thought that might just be too painful.

Clark spent the day in South Carolina. And the premise of the event was that at 7:45 PM he was coming back from the airport with a stack of pizzas for his hardworking staffers and volunteers.

Anyway, I thought it was supposed to be a rally of some sort. But by the time I got there at about 8:00 PM it seemed to be pretty much campaign workers and a slew of traveling press. Calm, more or less. A phone bank. A bunch of people milling around. Some volunteers whipping up signs with magic markers.

The Clark campaign headquarters is several rooms of computers and desks and one main central room where there’s a phone bank. And there — with a bunch of reporters, a few cameramen, and a sound boom or two hovering over him — was Clark chatting up a series of New Hampshire voters. I hunted up a space where I could crouch down and listened and watched some typical campaign theater — Clark chatting on the phone, seeming oblivious to the dozen or so reporters scribbling into their notebooks with that typically awful reporters’ handwriting.

One thing that struck me as odd is that Clark wasn’t talking about the campaign really. He seemed to be talking about the Kosovo campaign or his military career, or something like that, and going on at some length.

After a while I realized there was no point in listening to this. So I started milling around, talked to a couple friends and then made my way into a back room where E.J.Dionne and Al Hunt (luminaries who weren’t in Iowa!) were chatting up Eli Segal, who’s the campaign chairman for Clark.

(Matt Bennett, the communications director, was hovering around in the background, answering the occasional question.)

These little chat sessions are classic moments of campaign kabuki theater. We’re asking Segal questions. But we’re not really asking questions — as in asking questions in the sense that we think we’re going to hear what he thinks.

What we’re doing is tossing out questions so that Segal can tell us what the campaign’s spin is. Everybody has a wink in their eye because everyone knows what the deal is.

So people asked this question and that. Segal defended the decision not to contest Iowa. And then I piped up with the question I wanted to ask. What about Kerry? He’s rising as fast as you guys were a week ago, I said, and now he’s going to come out of Iowa with tons of momentum.

(This was before the results came out, say about 8:30 PM.)

Segal gave the standard answers, one campaign at a time, etc., etc., etc. But his real answer came at the end. He pointed to money and organization after New Hampshire, arguing that Kerry doesn’t have the ground organization in those states or the money to play everywhere at once in those later contests. Segal already seemed to be planning for the possibility of a Kerry resurgence in New Hampshire — setting up the argument that maybe he could sustain coming in behind Kerry?

(Tonight’s ARG poll has Kerry ever so slightly in second place again (Numbers: Dean 28%, Kerry 20%, Clark 19%.)

A bit later Clark was on Larry King Live. And they set up an impromptu studio with Clark set in front of the phone callers as a sort of a backdrop.

At this point we didn’t know what the results would be. And we could not hear Larry or whoever else was interviewing Clark. But we could hear Clark reacting. And it became clear fairly quickly from Clark’s responses that Kerry and Edwards were big winners.

This went on a bit longer. Clark finished. His volunteers cheered and went nuts. I talked to a few more people. Grabbed a slice of pizza at the Clark campaign’s expense and then hit the road.