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Daniel Ruth

Candidates smile through the pain

Contrary to what you might sometimes read in these scribblings, I have a soft spot for most politicians.

Regardless of party affiliation, or whether I might agree or disagree with their views, I admire the chutzpah, the single-mindedness, the willingness to subject themselves to the indignities of a campaign.

From time to time I am asked to moderate candidate forums, and I make it a point to begin these affairs by noting that running for office — any office, from the presidency to dog-catcher — is about the hardest work anyone can undertake.

The endless campaign events, the demand to constantly be "on," the need to put the rest of your life on hold for months at a time, is a job requirement few of us would be willing to accept. I know I couldn't.

Some years ago when I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, I interviewed then-alderman Danny Davis, who ran a misbegotten — some would say politically suicidal — campaign for mayor against Richard M. Daley. Davis would later be elected to Congress, but during this race he talked wistfully about the incredible demands on his time, so much so that he rued he never had a spare moment to engage in one of his favorite relaxing pastimes — polishing his shoes.

Davis spoke at length as to how he loved the smell of the polish and watching as the leather would come to life as he buffed his shoes. But he knew when he entered the race his footwear would have to wait.

He also knew he would lose. He ran anyway.

Now we are a week away from Election Day. We have entered that moment in a political campaign when it begins to dawn on a candidate that he or she will likely fail. It is a hard, bitter pill to swallow. Rejection hurts.

But it is also a reminder that a vast majority of campaigns begin as the children of hope and eventually end as the hustings' answer to a crime scene chalk outline.

Polling remains more of an art than a science. But we have still come a very long way from the days of "Dewey Defeats Truman." Polls are indeed a fairly accurate representation of where a campaign stands at a particular moment in time. Races deemed to be too close to call are, in the end, close races. And races predicted to be pretty much a no-brainer usually turn out that way.

So it is that right about now, both U.S. Senate hopefuls, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, are abundantly aware that come next Tuesday they likely will be — and this is a highly technical political science term — toast.

Yet for the next week, both men must carry on traversing the state, hustling for votes with a smile and a handshake, ever sunny, ever confident, insisting that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. It will be the hardest work they have done during this long, arduous campaign.

And who knows? Perhaps Republican Marco Rubio will be abducted by aliens. Perhaps he will do or say something so incredibly insane he manages to offend a vast majority of the electorate. It could happen. But it won't.

The rest of the public stands on the sidelines and sees two men going about their politicking with relative ease, not realizing that with every tick of the clock toward next Tuesday, the heart breaks a little more, the dreams become increasingly hazy, the ambition fades with relentless haste.

For the political junkie it is the saddest moment in a campaign.

I have known candidates who, even though they knew they were going to lose, still lent their campaigns thousands of dollars of their own money in the waning days simply because they felt they owed it to loyal campaign volunteers to boost morale.

That's largely, I have come to think, because campaigns — even inept ones — are ultimately organic exercises in democracy. They take on a life of their own. They are emotional. They are passionate. And they don't die easily.

Kendrick Meek is a relatively young man at 44. He ran a credible campaign. And if he is interested, he may still have a political future down the road.

But for Charlie Crist at 54, next Tuesday could well mark the end of a once very promising elective career. The political calendar has precious little to offer a former governor in terms of options.

For Charlie Crist, after next Tuesday, there will be shoes to shine and time to think — what might have been. Plenty of time.

Candidates smile through the pain 10/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 25, 2010 9:24pm]
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