On the road in Iowa with ‘Dr. Vote’

Odds are, the next president of the United States already has come face-to-face with Iowa’s secret agent man – code name “Dr. Vote.”

John Olsen is a man of many disguises.

Sometimes he’s in a suit and tie. Or it could be a red, white and blue sweater. Often, he wears the T-shirts and campaign buttons of his favorite candidate (of that day anyway).

And with his ever-present back pack over his shoulder, he slips into campaign rallies with two sneaky missions.

Job one: raise his hand and coax the candidates into talking about the health care “crisis” that affects his own family – autism.

Job two: sneak outside the event, open up his knapsack, slip on a new costume – a red and white smock – and go to work selling campaign buttons to the candidate’s fans.

“A lot of times I feel very conflicted because I have multiple roles,” Olsen said this week, awaiting the arrival of former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton at a union rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

Over the past nine months, virtually every White House contender – Republican and Democrat – has had to face Olsen’s standard question testing their knowledge about autism.

“What if one in 150 kids were kidnapped in this country?” he asks the candidates. “It would be a national crisis. While these kids are not being physically kidnapped, their minds are being kidnapped.”

And so, he asks these would-be White House residents, what they will do to fight autism?

It’s an issue that hits close to home for Olsen, 38, a substitute school teacher from Ankeny who is one of the more omni-present characters on the Iowa campaign trail.

His 8-year-old son, Patrick, was diagnosed early with autism, when odd, repetitive play – like stacking his toys instead of playing with them – was a tip-off to future problems. Olsen is convinced that mercury, possibly that in childhood immunizations, plays a role in increasing autism statistics around the country. He wants all the presidential candidates to study the issue, if nothing else.

The candidates don’t always agree with Olsen, but they can’t avoid facing the issue at the small, town-hall forums and question-and-answer sessions that dominate the run-up to the nation’s first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses.

At an event earlier this summer, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told Olsen that the research into mercury and autism was mixed, but at least he had studied the issue.

Olsen is a well-known campaign character among the local reporters who bounce from one candidate event to another and see him at every stop.

But the individual campaigns sometimes don’t realize who he is when he slips into a crowd, usually covered in the candidate’s buttons, and raises his hand.

Without fail, the candidates call on him.

Although Olsen is a dedicated Democrat, he signs up for every candidate’s mailing list. And earlier this year, he got a personal phone call from one of the Republicans – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – seeking his support. Olsen said he used it as a chance to press the autism issue.

His double-agent role, that of an equal-opportunity button-seller, stems from a passion as a political junkie and memorabilia collector – a bug he picked up while managing Political Americana stores in Washington, D.C., and Boston. He later served as curator of the American Presidential Museum in Branson, Mo., and these days, with a master’s degree in secondary education, he can be found staffing the USAButtonPoll.com’s booth in West Des Moines.

On Oct. 6, he’ll host the Caucus Iowa Political Button Show at the Iowa State Historical Building, where a cardboard cutout of “Dr. Vote” is included in the museum’s exhibition on Iowa’s quirky caucus process.

As a button-seller, Olsen feels the pulse of the voters through the badges on their lapels.

“Republicans have more money, but Democrats are more inclined to buy buttons,” at least for the moment, Olsen said. “They’re prouder. They’re willing to wear it on their shirt.”

The best-seller right now: Clinton buttons, he said.

So, of all the candidates he has met, which one does he think will win?

“I’ve got no idea,” Olsen said. “It’s that up in the air.”

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