The presidential aspirations of some Republicans may be all but over by the time the sun sets today in Ames, Iowa, after a closely watched straw poll tests their popularity and organizational ability.
The winnowing of the field feels more like a carnival than a cutthroat political contest, with the smells of barbeque and the sounds of country music filling the grounds of the venue at Iowa State University.
Yet if the tradition of the Iowa Straw Poll holds, the revelry will end with loss of political and fundraising support for candidates who don’t show momentum or meet expectations. Results will be announced after polls close at 4 p.m. local time. The candidates and their surrogates will then try to spin the results in their favor.
“Come on out to our tent,” Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told supporters and curiosity seekers yesterday at the Iowa State Fair. “We want you there because tomorrow is the day we make the down-payment on taking the country back.”
Much of the final campaigning took place at the fair. The traditional stop for White House contenders also drew a non- candidate with the potential to upend the race: Sarah Palin was mobbed as she slowly worked her way through the grounds after arriving in Des Moines on her periodic “One Nation” bus tour.
The former Alaska governor was noncommittal about whether she intends to join the presidential race, saying she intends to make a decision by the early fall.
‘More the Merrier’
“I think the more the merrier, the more the better in these debates and out there in the arena,” said Palin, 47. “It’s better for voters to have more choices.”
Asked if she would visit the straw poll venue, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee said no.
“I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Palin said. “So we won’t be in the state tomorrow.”
The star treatment given Palin, who was trailed by the news media and supporters, offered a reminder of the unsettled nature of the Republican primary field. While some contenders have been campaigning for months, Texas Governor Rick Perry is scheduled to announce his candidacy today in South Carolina.
At past straw polls, many Iowa Republicans didn’t actually listen to speeches by presidential candidates inside an Iowa State University’s basketball arena.
This year, with a wide-open Republican field vying to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, there is a sense that the undecided may base their votes on something other than who offers the best food or musical act at the gathering.
“There are a number of Iowa Republicans I’ve talked to at events that say they’re actually going to listen to the speeches before they decide,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
“It’s pretty volatile,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa who so far is neutral in the presidential race. “I’ve never seen it this unsettled -- ever.”
Bob Haus, a Republican strategist in Iowa and a straw poll organizer, also predicted a high number of undecided voters. He pointed to the importance of a well-received speech in 2007 by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who came from relative obscurity to finish second in the pol.
“He converted a fair chunk of people with his speech that day,” Haus said.
Huckabee, now a Fox News commentator, will be part of the spectacle again this year, playing his bass guitar at the straw poll tents of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Godfather’s Pizza Inc. executive Herman Cain.
After finishing behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2007 straw poll, Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 and remains popular in the state. Pawlenty, 50, and Bachmann, 55, have the most to gain, or lose.
Bachmann, an Iowa native, has drawn enthusiastic audiences to her campaign, while Pawlenty has built an extensive political organization in the state and tirelessly campaigned there. The two spent much of an Aug. 11 debate attacking each other, showing just how critical this week is to their political futures.
Adding to the uncertainty is the pending entry into the race by Perry, 61, who will make his first Iowa appearance roughly 24 hours after the straw poll results are announced.
Perry’s name won’t be on the straw poll ballot, though supporters have been encouraging people to write it in, an option available for the first time this year.
Once he gets to Iowa, Perry may have some apologizing to do. Some activists are upset that he skipped the straw poll and decided to make clear his presidential ambition in a spotlight- stealing South Carolina speech scheduled for the same day.
Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former state party political director, called Perry’s decision a “slap in the face to Republican voters in Iowa,” as well as to the other candidates seeking the nomination.
“The move makes it obvious that Governor Perry either doesn’t understand the Iowa caucuses or doesn’t respect the role that Iowa plays in the nominating process,” Robinson wrote.
While the straw poll is designed to gauge the early popularity of Republican presidential hopefuls, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of who will win the party’s caucuses in Iowa next year, much less the nomination.
Romney’s 2007 win is the most recent example. After spending roughly $2 million on his straw poll campaign, he finished second in the state’s caucuses and lost the 2008 nomination to Senator John McCain of Arizona. Romney, 64, decided against actively competing in the straw poll this year.
Besides Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Santorum and Cain, the other candidates on today’s ballot are Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
A ballot spot was guaranteed by renting space at the straw poll or by placement there by the state party. The event doubles as a fund-raiser for the state Republican Party.
Attendance requires a $30 admission ticket, so better- financed candidates often pick up that cost and provide bus rides to the venue, along with food and entertainment.
Chronicling the activity will be about 700 journalists from around the globe who have signed up for credentials.
In 2007, about 14,300 ballots were cast, and Romney won with just 4,516 votes.
Even though the straw poll represents only a fraction of Iowa Republicans, party leaders defend the event, saying it tests the organizational ability of the campaigns before the caucuses.
“Most of these campaigns would love to know in August, if somebody is committed to driving to Ames or to get on a bus, that’s somebody you know you can count on on a cold February night,” Strawn said. “From a campaign perspective, I think it’s incredibly important.”
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