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Platforms first, then the shoes

Times Staff Writer

First of all, if you see my husband reading this, please cause some kind of distraction -- fall to the floor clutching your heart, maybe? -- then snatch the paper from his hands.

Now for my confession:

For months, the presidential candidates stumped like madmen all over the country. They battled over Iraq, they clashed over the economy and tax breaks and unemployment and healthcare. I followed along, reporting from Des Moines and Detroit, Seattle and Scranton, Wausau and Wilkes-Barre. The election may be over, but the eternal candidate question still rings in my ears: Am I better off today than I was four years ago?

God, no.

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But I have only myself to blame.

Four years ago, I was working as an editor, tethered to my desk, with little time to shop. But since January, I’ve been on the road. On the road, there is no husband to feed, no 12-year-old daughter to help with homework. On the road, there are no sinks full of dishes, no unmade beds (that I’m going to deal with, anyway). On the road, the two insanely high-maintenance Boston terriers become mere black-and-white abstractions.

On the road, there is only work.

Well ... and shopping.

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Partly, I shop out of guilt. With gifts to cushion the absence, the average adolescent may consider forgiving her mother for a 10-day trip. Tragically, during the Democratic National Convention, I was too busy to shop. “That’s OK, Mom,” my daughter said consolingly. But as I left for the Republican convention in New York a few weeks later, she hugged me, then lowered her chin and glared: “Don’t come back empty-handed this time.”

I realized there could be a productive balance between generating income and disposing of it the day after the Iowa caucuses, when a bitter chill drove me indoors, to Valley West Mall in West Des Moines. There, I discovered Von Maur, a Midwestern chain founded in 1872. Lovely place. Very Nordstrom-y. (Not as Nordstrom-y as the original Nordstrom in Seattle, where I bought a pair of pink pastel witchy-toed boots in April while reporting a story about single women voters. But nice.)

At Von Maur, I found my official campaign travel wardrobe: brown wool pants and a heavy black ribbed-cotton zip-front sweater. Sadly, I had to put them away for summer, but just two weeks ago in Pennsylvania, it was cold enough to haul them back out.

In February, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Sen. Ted Kennedy appeared together at the University of Wisconsin, which was fascinating, but what was truly memorable were the mirrors I saw in a Madison storefront. The brightly painted frames -- by a Minnesota company called 2 Grrrls -- said “Hello gorgeous” and “You look marvelous.” Perfect. I returned for them the next morning, but I couldn’t find the store.

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I thought I was going crazy -- you do get slightly nutty on the road. At least three times this year, I have attempted to enter my hotel room, only to discover I had memorized the number of the room I’d stayed in the night before in a different city. When I finally found the store, Puzzlebox, it turned out they’d changed their windows that morning. And the mirrors -- which by the way look great on my daughter’s wall -- were on sale!

That feeling of dislocation struck again when I tried to find an unusual airport store some months after buying, for $4 each, five fantastic little hand-carved birds, which my dogs promptly ate. I knew it was somewhere in the Denver airport, which -- who knew? -- has amazing boutiques. But I forgot the name. Last month, as I changed planes in Denver, I walked the length of that terminal four times searching for the store, which had mysteriously disappeared. Then, on my way to cover some Kerry rallies two weeks later, I found it -- Toto -- at the Pittsburgh airport. There is no Toto in Denver.

But I had never been to Pittsburgh before that trip, so where’d I find my first Toto? Minneapolis, as it turned out.

Minneapolis is also where I tasted my first deep-fried cheese curds -- at a Bush “victory rally” -- but I’ll always think fondly of the place because of the ground floor of its Saks Fifth Avenue store, Off 5th, a wonderland of markdowns. For $70, I bought a Max Mara jacket with an original price tag of $675.

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Oddly, Des Moines is the retail environment that has amazed me most. In October, at the airport gift store, I bought my husband a joke T-shirt with a drawing of an ear of corn on the front and the slogan “Iowa Detasseling Crew.”

“Ha! That’s so funny!” I told the cashier.

“It’s not a joke,” she said dryly. Detasseling is an important farm job; corn detasselers rip the pollen-producing topknot off the plant, so the corn doesn’t pollinate itself.

Divine in Des Moines

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While the big-shot media folks who descend on Des Moines every four years like to schmooze in a couple of really terrific downtown restaurants, when I returned for a Bush rally recently, I found something far more enticing than a 20-ounce double cut Iowa pork chop: a fabulous gallery of functional art called Sticks, in the shadow of the golden-domed state capitol. (I can’t tell you what I bought; it’s for Christmas. Check out www.sticks.com).

What I can tell you is that at my hotel, the Fort Des Moines, where Kerry held a party celebrating his first stunning victory in January, I overheard two women talking about a new mall, and the magic words “J. Jill store.” I stopped at Jordan Creek Town Center on my way to the airport the next day. (OK, so technically it wasn’t on the way to the airport. Sue me.) The very best store in the mall was one of the few U.S. outposts of a very hip Barcelona-based handbag store, Misako, which sells every possible size and shape of bag for about $30.

And honey, if you’re reading this, I got out of there for under $100.

Robin Abcarian can be reached at robin.abcarian@latimes.com.

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