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Campaign politics: Straight up or on the rocks?

In a town swimming with ripe political savvy, there is one man in Des Moines who holds the most important piece of information at the end of every day on the trail.

In a town swimming with politically savvy folks ripe with juicy leads, there is one man who holds the most important piece of information at the end of every day on the trail.

Damon Murphy knows what you're drinking.   

"That's Hendricks," he says, pointing at the gin and tonic that he's just set on the bar in front of me. "Now I know to get you a Hendricks the minute you walk in the door."

Damon is the bar manager at the most exclusive steakhouse in Des Moines that for a few months every four years becomes a mecca for the supernovas of American politics and political journalism.

As the Iowa caucuses draw near, the rich burgundy-and-chocolate decor of 801 Grand Steak and Chop House becomes the stylish after-hours watering hole of choice for the national media types, campaign gurus, and rock star consultants who have descended upon downtown Des Moines.

On any given night, Damon's domain looks like a Meet The Press roundtable -- on barstools.   From his post behind the bar, he hears whiffs of scotch-laced conversation about new polls and age-old stump strategies that waft amid the smoke from high-end cigars.

The array of bottles behind him reflects booths that have seated news anchor Tom Brokaw, football star Dan Marino, Iowa governor Chet Culver, and the occasional presidential candidate (Fred Thompson and John Edwards have both been to 801, although Damon admits that both came on Fridays, his rare day off.)

And if you have a favorite drink, Damon knows it.

"Knowing tendencies," says the genteel bartender, the owner of an impeccably trimmed goatee and an astounding talent for matching faces with names. "It's part of what my job entails."

With immaculate politesse, he excuses himself for a moment. Tawny port for the seasoned television journalist down the bar. "Same thing he always gets when he's in here," Damon murmurs.

At thirty-one, Damon is a master of the art of alcohol. He worked for over seven years as a manager at the Des Moines Marriott, also highly trafficked by campaign big shots during the most wonderful time of the political year. Two years ago, he was working at a mom-n-pop lounge in Clive when the management of 801 recruited him.

A round of White Russians for a group of newcomers. And one black Sambuca.

How much does the pre-caucus season change the pace at 801? "The clientele is a little more astute," he says.

Gesturing to the candy shop of fine liquors that line the wall behind him, he lists off the top sellers among the highbrow crowd: Lemon drop martinis; Cosmopolitans; Ports.

"We had a bottle of Drambuie here for a year, it seemed like, and no one ever drank it," he chuckles. "Now we've gone through a bottle and a half."

He's right about the cosmopolitans. He makes two for the couple at the end of the bar.

What happens on January 4th? "I get a day off," he grins. (He's been working six day weeks since Thanksgiving.)

What about tips? Damon says that journalists tend to tip better than campaign staffers, and that Democrats are a bit more generous than their GOP counterparts.  

The reporters sipping gin and tonics to my right pay out. Damon flashes me a confidential smile and nods meaningfully at the receipt. "Twenty percent," he mouths.

He's not a natural political junkie, but he says he can't help but be interested by the chatter of his clientele. But he won't be caucusing. "I will be here," he says, shaking his head and tapping the bar smartly. He's one of those disenfranchised by Iowa's unique caucus process, which makes attendance at the evening meeting a requirement. 

When the big night comes, he'll be pouring champagne toasts for the victors and bittersweet cocktails for the campaigns on the rocks.

Another Hendricks?

If you insist.