Republican presidential candidates are readying themselves for Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll, an early indication of voter sentiment in the nation’s first primary/caucus state.
Six candidates bought booths for the event at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, which is expected to draw 20,000 voters (non-Republicans are allowed to attend).
The list includes Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter.
Front-runner Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have decided to skip the event.
Many Republicans who plan to vote in the poll are still undecided, Iowa Republican sources tell The Hill. Most usually have made up their mind this close to the event.
Voters will be treated to entertainment, food and candidate speeches before registering their decisions. Admission is $30. Many attendees are bused, and the candidates reimburse them.
The predictive power of the poll is limited. In the five previous editions beginning in 1979, the poll winner also took the Iowa caucuses three times and the Republican nomination only twice.
Romney won the poll in 2007, but lost the caucuses to Mike Huckabee and the nomination to John McCain.
"It is the most important meaningless event in American politics," said former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, who placed second in the 2007 poll, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The poll’s outcome is "as binding as straw," Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, told the paper. But it can inject momentum into the winner’s campaign and steal momentum from the also-rans.
Many presidential hopefuls take it quite seriously. “It can make or break a candidate," Paul told the Tribune-Review. He shelled out $31,000 to snag a top position for his booth.
Bachmann booked country music star Randy Travis to attract attention at her booth. The Minnesota congresswoman, who has placed second to Romney in national polls, has spent a lot of time making grass-roots appearances over the past few weeks to boost her chances in the poll.
If she fails to win a contest that neither Romney nor expected candidate Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has joined, it will be viewed as a disappointing performance.
Bachmann received key endorsements this week from prominent Iowa tea partyer Ryan Rhodes and social conservative leader Danny Carroll. There has been talk that tea party activists will vote as a bloc, which could help her.
The poll may be very important for Pawlenty, who Politico estimates has spent more than $1 million to win over Iowa voters. Despite spending more time in the state than any candidate outside of Santorum, the former Minnesota governor hasn’t been able to gain traction in polls.
“Tim Pawlenty pulled into Iowa on fumes, and with Rick Perry about to enter the fray, Ames is likely make or break for Team Pawlenty,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican consultant and chairman of CivicForumPAC, wrote on Politico.
“In desperate need of a fundraising boost and a change in the media narrative, if Team Pawlenty does not achieve a first or second [place] finish in the Ames Straw Poll, the campaign will likely never take off.”
The poll also could be crucial for Santorum, who has attracted little support in national polls so far. He says he held 50 town hall-style meetings in Iowa over the past two weeks to boost his standing. Santorum needs a good showing to jump-start his campaign, professor Brauer said.
As for Romney, he has virtually ignored Iowa, concentrating on other states, including New Hampshire, where he holds a formidable lead in polls.
Romney burned through millions of dollar to achieve victory in the 2007 poll, which translated into only a third place finish in Iowa’s caucuses.
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