‘Mudcat’ on trail today in Iowa (Roanoke Times)

“In the Flow” with Shanna Flowers

Today, much of the nation’s attention is on Iowa and its political caucuses. Even though the people in the mostly rural state are nearly a thousand miles away from Western Virginia, they’re a lot like us.

“There’s only 50 cents of difference,” drawled Dave “Mudcat” Saunders. And that is? “Oh, just the way we talk. People have to say, ‘What’d you say?’ ”

Anyone who has seen the movie “Forest Gump” is familiar with the lovable simpleton’s uncanny knack for insinuating himself in the pivotal, transcendent moments of history, with the newsmakers of the time.

Saunders is far from a simpleton. Behind the homespun, bluegrass facade is a shrewd and calculating man. But along with Gump’s drawl, Saunders shares the fictitious character’s talent for being in the right place at the right time. That’s why the Roanoke County native son is in Iowa today, crisscrossing the state as a senior strategist for Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards

‘It’s a circus’

Today’s caucuses are the first real measure of the candidates, who have spent the past year campaigning in the state where the presidential race officially kicks off every four years.

And Mudcat Saunders — the Virginia Tech dropout who was once thrown out of the Baltimore Colts’ locker room for making a crude observation to NFL great Johnny Unitas, is knee-deep in presidential politics.

“It’s a circus. Everybody is out here,” Saunders said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon.

National media outlets are tripping over one another. Campaign rivals stomping for votes pass one another along the same snow-covered roads.

In recent weeks, celebrities such as actor Kevin Bacon and singers Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and John Mellencamp have flown in to show their support for Edwards.

Anything for a vote

New Year’s Day, Saunders pulled a 19-hour day — not bad for a guy who’s 59. He spends his days meeting with Iowans in cafes and restaurants, barber shops, gas stations, wherever he can find voters to share the Edwards’ gospel of social justice and economic fairness. Friday, he jokingly proposed to a clerk in a card store — anything for a vote.

“I’m like the accidental tourist in all of this,” Saunders said. “My name is ‘Mudcat,’ and I have a strong Virginia accent. I think that’s really got a lot to do with it.”

Don’t let Saunders fool you. He may amble around in jeans and his ever-present baseball cap and his nickname may have come 40 years ago from his love of cat-fishing in the Roanoke River, but he’s a lot more than Bubba Gump.

Underneath the good ol’ boy affability are razor-sharp instincts. His role, as it has been in other campaigns, is to help Edwards snag the rural vote.

Saunders worked with campaign researchers, a filmmaker and former congressman and actor Ben “Cooter” Jones to produce a 12-minute campaign film about Edwards’ plan to revitalize rural America. It’s folksy, with interviews of the candidate’s parents, historical footage of coal miners and farmers and photos of shuttered plants.

Saunders said Edwards makes his job easier.

“You don’t have to strategize much,” Saunders said. “John gets its. Hell, he’s from Robbins, North Carolina. He understands the problems of rural America.”

Today, Saunders will spend much of his time in Iowa conducting media interviews, preaching the populist, “One America” gospel of John Edwards.

Newspapers, radio, television — no matter the medium, Saunders is popular among journalists and pundits because as we like to say in the business, he gives good quote.

25 years of recovery

He’s straightforward, colorful and sprinkles his conversation with wry and witty observations. He has a blog on the Huffington Post. He had one this summer on Time’s Web site and is a “guest correspondent” with the magazine.

He drops names such as Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Joe Klein of Time. He gave me the private e-mail address of MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson and calls Edwards “Johnny.”

That’s pretty heady stuff for a recovering alcoholic who marks 25 years of sobriety today.

He grew up in Cave Spring and attended Cave Spring Baptist Church.

After dropping out of Tech, he charmed his way into a sportswriting job at the Roanoke World-News in the early 1970s. Back then, he couldn’t type, so he persuaded a pal who also was a columnist here to furtively type his hand-scrawled copy.

Later, as a sports writer for the Times Herald in Newport News, Saunders covered the Baltimore Colts and quarterback Johnny Unitas for a season.

“Johnny, I’ve been watching you all year now as you go into the shower and come out, and I just have one thing to ask: Why do you always dry your [privates] before you dry your head?”

He summarily was ejected from the locker room.

Like Gump, Saunders has a habit of stumbling into the right place. He and his business partner Richard Wells were among the first private investors to capitalize on downtown’s turnaround.

The two remain close friends and Saunders said, “I wouldn’t be able to chase my dreams to help John Edwards” without Wells.

The political bug bit, and Saunders hooked up with former state Democratic lawmaker Dickie Cranwell, whom he affectionately calls his “big brother.”

Seven years ago, Mark Warner asked him to be his “rural strategist” in his successful run for Virginia governor.

‘A broader perspective’

His relationship with Edwards stretches back to 2001, but in May 2006, Saunders signed on for the former senator’s current presidential run. The former senator made the pitch, but his wife, Elizabeth, closed the deal, Saunders said.

Washington is full of consultants who spend all their time living and working there, Elizabeth Edwards said.

“They have very insular ideas of what’s happening in America.”

Saunders, who makes his home in a small cabin in rural Roanoke County, is “really blessed with a much broader perspective,” Elizabeth Edwards said.

Roanoke’s hometown son wants to help Edwards get to the White House. But once that is done, he’ll be ready to pack his bags and come home.

For good.

Well, sorta. If Virginia U.S. Sen. Jim Webb ever decides he wants to run for president, Saunders said he will dust off his rural strategy playbook and jump back into the national political fray.

New Hampshire-bound

But when the run with Edwards ends, ideally in the White House, Saunders said he will come home.

“I want to go back to the hills of Virginia,” said Saunders, who is single. “I want to get back with my kids.” He has two daughters, Abby, 6, and Erin, 25.

“I’m in a business where there’s a lot of egos.

“To be honest, I’ve never been in awe of it. I came into this thing because I believed in rural Virginia. I came in as a rural advocate. If I stay too much longer, I’m afraid I’ll end up a political animal.”

At the same time, Saunders is quick to add that he “made some tremendous friends” and admits the opportunities he has received because of his heightened profile.

When we spoke, Saunders was already looking beyond Iowa. He’ll be on a plane Friday morning headed to New Hampshire for its primaries.

The man who doesn’t hide his dislike for Hillary Clinton spoke frankly about his own future in the 2008 presidential race if Edwards’ bid ends prematurely.

“I don’t think the Clintons will ever hire me.”

Not that he’s waiting.

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