“Are you waving?”

It’s our daughter Lee on the phone. She’s been watching the recent Republican debate on television and wants to know if we are anywhere near the big camera panning the Iowa Event Center as the audience departs. Yes, Blake and I were in the audience. But, no, we were never in the klieg lights with the pundits. I get her text while we are heading down the escalator with a host of our Iowa neighbors, past the guys dismantling the Pork Congress props, past the Caucusing for Ethanol in 2016 sign, two foreigners who will not have to make up their minds by Iowa’s Monday night caucus.

This both frees us to observe and makes us less relevant to the historical proceedings at hand. Judicious eavesdropping leads me to conclude that much of the audience at this debate is on a first name basis with more than one of the candidates. The menfolk of the family seated behind us, ages 10 to 50 or so, are dressed for success in jackets, rep ties and slicked back hair. Despite their formal attire, they are on a first name basis with “Rick” and “Mike” and have decided that Messrs. Santorum and Huckabee will be on the stage, with the absent Donald Trump at his competing event “strictly for the veterans.”

With rousing cheers of “President Paul, President Paul!”, the Ron Paul crowd has seamlessly switched over from father to son. When the chant changes over to “We Stand with Rand,” Greg Gutfeld, author, satirist and Fox News personality, yells out “I sit with Mitt!” He is sitting a row in front of us and murmurs to no one in particular, “I couldn’t help myself.” Entire families are sprinkled through the crowd, devoting their evening to civics and keeping the youngsters up too late.

The temperature rises as the main card strides onto the stage. The moderators are all business on break and all smiles on camera.  They are unflinchingly tough and borderline contentious to the candidates. The crowd takes this approach in stride, saving its boos for any mention of Hillary Clinton. The gentleman on my right is frustrated though. “They passed right over Ben again!” he cries. He is from Des Moines and a supporter of Ben Carson.  Has Dr. Carson drawn him into politics? Will he attend his first Iowa caucus? He leaves at the last break, and I never get to ask.

A debate is face-to-face, politics close up, like boxing. If your only exposure to the process is the long distance carpet bombing of advertising, it’s easy to forget the vitality of hand-to-hand, town square to town hall, bus ride and church basement politicking. A Missourian watching Iowa in an election year cannot help but feel a pang of envy for the experience of having the future leader of our nation pound the ground of your communities, not just fly into the nearest major airport for a fundraiser and a press conference. Sure, it’s theater, but not without meaning, just like the debates.

Do I have a favorite? Yes, I guess I am not unbiased even at this early date. But I’m not writing to sway your opinion about any of the candidates. When I listened to the debate, and eavesdropped on the people around me, I felt reassured about our country, even if the campaign to this point has been “unprecedented,” if not bizarre. If you are disenchanted with our system, a debate is an arena in which leaders vie in the same way Lincoln and Douglas met in front of the people. It is a space where words and ideas stand alone, unfiltered by suggestive backgrounds, unflattering mugshots and threatening sound tracks. A debate in Iowa, the last one before the caucuses, is persuasion unplugged: the voters and the candidates, no less and no more, as it has been since our country began.