All aboard the Condi Mobile!

Condoleezza Rice says she's not running for president, but that doesn't matter to the gang aboard one very special motor home.

Published May 24, 2007 11:06AM (EDT)

Just before the 10 Republican presidential candidates debated here last Tuesday night, Crystal Dueker was standing across from the auditorium where the event was held, stumping by herself for a candidate who would not be on the stage, and who has no intention of running. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly that she will not be a candidate for president in 2008, and on the night of the debate she was 6,000 miles away, in Moscow. Dueker was out on the sidewalk on Rice's behalf anyway, emerging from her 29-foot motor home, a "Condi Mobile" plastered with Condi stickers and signs, holding a Condi sign and proudly displaying the pro-Rice buttons on the lapels of her jacket to a crowd marching by.

The marchers were streaming out of a rally being held down the street from the debate in support of the "FairTax," a proposal to replace federal income and payroll taxes with a single flat sales tax. Many of the attendees gave Dueker a thumbs up or an encouraging shout: "I'd vote for Condi!" "Gotta love her!" "If she'd run, I'd vote for her!" Some stopped to talk or to get one of the buttons. As Dueker began to run low on her small supply of buttons, and hesitated to give out more, a young African-American woman with short, spiky dreadlocks stuck out her chest, pointing to where she had cut away the FairTax T-shirt most of the marchers were wearing to make something vaguely resembling a halter top, and said she planned on wearing the button right there. Dueker laughed and gave her one.

But most people passed Dueker, a blond, middle-aged Midwesterner in a red blazer and skirt and pearl earrings, without acknowledgment. There were also a few puzzled reactions from the crowd. One man, who stopped to talk after seeing the North Dakota plates on the motor home, noting that he was originally from Fargo himself, said that if Rice ran, he'd vote for her. But when Dueker told him her plan -- "we're going to draft her like Eisenhower" -- his face turned confused, then fell, and the conversation was over. Another man didn't even stop; he just gave Dueker a quizzical, almost pitying look, said, "But she's not running," and kept on walking.

It wasn't long ago that there was significant support for Rice's entry into the the presidential race. In 2005, as it became clear the Democrats would likely have at least one female in the race for their 2008 presidential nomination, Rice was being discussed as the woman who could neutralize her. By then the war wasn't popular, certainly, but it wasn't the lead anchor it would soon become for Republicans -- especially those Republicans closely linked to the Bush administration. Rice's approval ratings had yet to be tarnished by her association with Iraq. But then came the midterm elections of 2006, and the attendant Republican massacre, and suddenly even the most loyal of Republican presidential candidates began to scurry away from anything that smacked of George W. Bush. At the South Carolina debate, just one of the 10 men onstage -- Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the lone antiwar candidate -- even mentioned Bush's name, and then only once. But there are still some Republican Party stalwarts who refuse to say die -- who, dissatisfied with the declared presidential candidates, want someone who will pick up the Bush administration's mantle and flourish it without apology. They're out there, and in surprisingly large numbers; it's just that they've been shunted offstage and into a 14-year-old motor home.

Dueker is the communications director for ThinkCondi, a group she founded to build a groundswell that will sweep Rice into the race. Now in charge of the organization is its chairman, Richard Holt, of Ohio, also in Columbia for the debate; Dueker brought Holt in a few months after she started the group.

It wouldn't be fair to describe either Holt or Dueker as naifs, but they are not hardened political operatives either. Though 52, and a veteran Republican volunteer -- she has photos of herself, longtime boyfriend David Butler and various Republican heavyweights, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Arizona Sen. John McCain, dotting the interior of her motor home -- Dueker has never before progressed beyond the volunteer level in a campaign. In her professional life, she's mostly done office work. Normally she bounces between Florida's Gulf Coast and the frigid Upper Midwest with Butler, who is retired, but since she's started working part time to focus more on ThinkCondi, she has also spent more time away from North Dakota, going to events around the country.

Holt is just 26. Maybe it's the mustache, maybe it's the suit, white shirt and striped tie, but he looks older than his age. And he looks like the one with real hands-on, paid campaign experience, which, of ThinkCondi's volunteers nationwide, he is. While he was a teenager in West Virginia, he became involved with Republican politics because, he says, he loved Ronald Reagan ("I used to draw pictures of him in the White House") and Ronald Reagan was a Republican. After moving to Ohio for college, where he was involved with the College Republicans at Ohio University, he got into politics. He ran for Ohio's state Legislature in 2004, losing handily to a Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic district. He now earns his living as a political consultant. Of mixed ethnicity -- his mother is white, his father is African-American -- he has worked for the National Black Republican Association and Republicans for Black Empowerment, among other organizations.

Holt had driven down from Ohio for the debate, Dueker had driven up from Tampa, Fla., and though Holt would be heading home afterward, Dueker would be staying until that weekend. She planned to set up a table with buttons and fliers at the South Carolina Republican Party's state convention. The two, along with Butler, had decided to sleep in Dueker and Butler's 1993 Coachmen Pathfinder rather than book hotel rooms. They parked at the nearby Sesquicentennial State Park at night. Dueker and Butler took the bedroom, which was curtained off from the living room and driving area. Holt slept on the couch -- decorated, like much of the motor home's furniture, in purple -- behind the driver's seat.

Over lunch at Maurice's, a chain specializing in South Carolina's, um, distinctive yellow mustard-based barbecue -- just a slice of pecan pie, thanks, for Holt -- Holt and Dueker explained their strategy. The two see themselves as being like those who successfully drafted Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president in 1952, and they see Rice as an Eisenhower-like figure, someone without the relentless ambition of most politicians, who doesn't want to run and would never consider it on her own but who will, once made to understand the country's need and desire for her, respond to the call of duty.

"I just see something there," Holt says, and then unself-consciously invokes an ancient Greek philosopher much admired by conservatives. "She's not exactly one of Plato's 'guardians,' but she's been able to be propelled and promoted and to be sought out and put in your situation because of your ability, whereas these guys have always gone after it, always been chasing after it."

There are some pretty substantial differences between those who drafted Eisenhower and those trying to draft Rice, though. At the forefront of the movement to draft Eisenhower were some of the country's most prominent Republican politicians, including New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. And there are some important differences between Eisenhower and Rice themselves: Eisenhower was a war hero at the height of his popularity, Rice is a foreign policy official in an administration whose approval ratings are tanking, largely because of its unpopular foreign policy.

Holt and Dueker are unconcerned. They believe that voters in the Republican primary don't want their candidates running away from Bush -- and they're not entirely wrong about that. A solid two-thirds of Republicans still approve of Bush (though a Pew Research Center poll released in late April showed that only 44 percent of Republicans wanted a candidate who would continue Bush's policies on Iraq). In the general election, they're certain, Americans will see Rice for who she is, not whom she's worked for.

"People are saying, 'Well, how come she's not being tainted by the problems of the Bush administration?' And the people see her as separate. She's part, but she's still separate," Dueker says. "You'd think as the president keeps sliding farther and farther it would have an effect on her, and the opposite has happened ... people are separating, thinking she's with the State Department, he's the president, she's having more influence on him because he's stepped back from cowboy diplomacy and she's bringing him back toward diplomacy, the real deal."

Maybe once upon a time people did see Condi Rice and George Bush as separate entities, even after she slipped and called him her husband. It seems to be getting less true, however. Rice's popularity has been falling lately. A Harris poll released at the end of April showed that a plurality of Americans view her negatively. Through 2005 and even into late 2006, as President Bush's ratings dipped into the 40s and then the 30s, Rice managed to stay blissfully popular, her approval ratings hovering in the 50s. But this year, she's begun to slide. Fifty percent of the country now disapprove of her performance; 45 percent approve.

If she did enter the race, Rice's position among the American public would likely only dip further. Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, concedes that her approval ratings are relatively high, but believes that's for reasons as yet unconnected to her actual performance. "She's a black woman; I think that's 90 percent of it," Sabato observes. "She's highly articulate, she seems more intelligent than the president. Part of it is just the fact that she's a path-breaker." But, Sabato adds, if she were to enter the race, the public would be exposed to more than just the superficial side of her.

"People haven't focused on her role in Iraq yet. If she were to run, I doubt that would continue -- look at ["At the Center of the Storm," the recently released memoir of former CIA director George Tenet]. The criticism of her is pretty harsh. Once she's a candidate that becomes fair game."

In the meantime, there are plenty of people who would be willing to support Rice. In an interview with Salon, pollster John Zogby noted that when he was still including Rice in his national polls of potential Republican presidential candidates, which he stopped doing earlier this year, she was in a solid third or fourth place, with percentages of support in the high single or low double digits. If Rice were to enter the race, Zogby speculated, this level of support would immediately put her in the second or even first tier of candidates.

This support translated, for a time, into a robust Internet movement. Some 20 Web sites devoted to the idea of a draft have popped up at one point or another. Most, though, have cooled -- some of the sites are down, others haven't been updated in months., for example, had no posts between August of 2006 and January of 2007, and the last update, in January, begins, "I'll be honest, my enthusiasm waned considerably after it became a bit of a reality that Condi was not running." (The site disappeared altogether as this story was being prepared for publication.) According to records at the Wayback Machine, another site,, hasn't been updated since late 2005. Its "contact us" page has been changed to include a message that "We have had to remove our contact form due to the constant abuse and threats that we were receiving daily from the peaceful and tolerant Democrats, Liberals, Communists, Socialists, Muslims and the other followers of Hillary Clinton and Islam."

The biggest and most successful of the draft organizations was Americans for Rice, which Dueker was once affiliated with. According to founder Richard Mason, though, the group has split in recent months, with people he calls "Condi 2008 dead-enders" breaking off from those remaining in the group, who have all but given up hope of Rice's running for president in 2008 and have chosen instead to focus on the possibility of her as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008 or, perhaps, a presidential candidate in 2012. Dueker was one of the dissidents, though she does note that she believes Rice would be "an excellent choice" for vice president on this year's Republican ticket.

"We had one member of our group who said that if, God forbid, Condi's plane would go down, Crystal would be out there saying, 'Oh, they could still find her alive,'" Mason says. "I admire Crystal, don't get me wrong; she's got tremendous drive and endless energy ... but she's coming at it from a different perspective."

There's also the little problem that Rice has stated again and again that she has no plans or desire to run for president. Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, reiterated Rice's position to Salon: "While the secretary appreciates people who think so highly of her, as she's said repeatedly, she has no plans to run for president and she looks forward to returning to Stanford at the end of the administration."

Even Dick Morris, the political consultant who ran former President Bill Clinton's successful bid for reelection in 1996 and who co-wrote the book "Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race," with his wife, Eileen McGann, has all but given up hope that Rice will enter the race for president. "I've despaired of her getting into the race, because she shows every indication of not wanting to run, but I still think she'd be the strongest Republican candidate for president as well as the strongest candidate for vice president," he says. Morris insists, though, that there is still a chance she could come in as a veep pick, and be a good one, because she would strip away support from two key Democratic demographics, African-Americans and women.

Holt and Dueker wave away Rice's unconditional refusal to run by citing a federal law that prohibits the secretary of state from engaging in partisan politics. "There's the Hatch Act," explains Dueker. "If she were to say that she was going to run, she would have to resign, and right now is not the time." And despite the decline of the other Rice-boosting groups, Holt and Dueker claim they continue to see support for ThinkCondi's efforts. Holt says their Web site,, averages about 6,500 hits a day, sometimes going up as high as 20,000, even 30,000, and that their mailing list now reaches 12,000 people, 5,000 of whom have pledged to be volunteers when called upon. Those numbers could not be independently verified.

Much of the interest may have been due to the fact that, despite the crowded field, Republican primary voters have been dissatisfied with their choices thus far. A CBS News/New York Times poll released in March -- admittedly before the candidacy of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was being discussed as a serious possibility -- showed that 57 percent of Democrats were satisfied with the candidates in their race; by contrast, just 40 percent of Republicans were. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans wanted more candidates.

This is, in the minds of Holt and Dueker, part of the basis of their movement. Despite being a Republican, Holt is an admirer of Joe Trippi, the political consultant behind the Internet-based strategy former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean used, unsuccessfully, during the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Holt saw in that campaign how the Internet could be used to link people unsatisfied with their party's choices, and bring them out to support a candidate of their own. He wants to do that with ThinkCondi, though he concedes that the group's Web site is not up to that level yet, and that the Republican base isn't as young, as disaffected or as tech-savvy as the people who supported Dean.

It's probably wise for ThinkCondi to be pursuing an Internet-based strategy, as -- at least in South Carolina -- they don't seem to be on top of their ground game. Holt and Dueker had a captive audience of thousands to talk to at that FairTax rally, but they stayed for just a few minutes, leaving to wait in the Pathfinder for a reporter for the New York Daily News who never showed, and then choosing not to go back to the rally. It was too crowded for their taste. Despite having driven from opposite corners of the country for the debate, and parking in prime real estate right across from the auditorium, the two spent the hours before the debate inside the motor home. It was only through sheer coincidence that the group of FairTax supporters wandered close enough to talk to Dueker just as she was emerging from the vehicle.

For the debate itself, rather than mix with thousands of potential acolytes at the FairTax rally or inside the auditorium, Holt and Dueker chose to watch on TV. They sat in the cigar room of a sports bar, dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of each Republican candidate, and talking Condi.

By then, their intimate tone when talking about the secretary of state had become familiar. But it had also become clear that not only had they never met Ms. Rice, they'd never so much as e-mailed her. "It's not time to contact her yet," insists Holt, who wants to wait until early 2008.

Dueker is confident in her choice anyway. "I see for the future of this country someone who's strong on defense, strong on foreign policy, and the only person who can bring that to the table is Condi," she says. "There's nobody else who inspires me, there's nobody else who motivates me. Everybody else I say if they're nominated, I'd support them, because I'm a good Republican. But this woman brings out the passion in me."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East Republican Party