It wasn’t as if Mary Savely didn’t like what she heard from Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain on a sunny Iowa morning this week.
She did. Cain’s common sense and business background all were enticing elements, she said.
Still, the Davenport woman wasn’t ready to throw him her support yet. Or to anybody, in fact.
“I have not made up my mind,” she said.
With only days to go before the Republican Party of Iowa’s Straw Poll, analysts say perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent of the people who plan to go to Ames haven’t made up their minds whom they’re going to support.
It’s not a big number, but in a race with nine candidates on the ballot and no clear front-runner, that could make convincing enough people like Savely in the final days a factor.
Consider this: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s second-place finish in the 2007 straw poll is generally acknowledged to have supercharged his campaign, and he ended up winning the precinct caucuses just four months later. But he finished fewer than 400 votes ahead of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback out of 14,000 cast at the straw poll.
Brownback dropped out of the race just two months later.
If turnout Saturday is like it was four years ago and 10 percent to 20 percent show up uncommitted, that leaves hundreds of people up for grabs.
To be sure, getting committed supporters to Ames is still a key to winning, strategists say. And most of the people who show up will have chosen a side, according to veterans of straw poll campaigns.
After all, the cost of a ticket is $30, and it takes several hours to drive to Ames and back from the corners of the state. With campaigns buying tickets for supporters and giving them rides to the event, “it is such an easier part of the process to be committed to somebody,” said Eric Woolson, a veteran Iowa Republican who is working for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But there’s still a lot of convincing being done. This week, candidates have been crisscrossing the state seeking to persuade people to sign up.
Republican hopeful Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has been aggressively scouring the small towns of Iowa, as well as its cities, trying to make the argument he has the most experience — and is the most electable.
“The goal of each and every one of those events is to convert folks and get them signed up,” said Nick Ryan, a Des Moines strategist and adviser to the Santorum campaign.
John Ortega, a Bettendorf Republican who is a member of the state GOP central committee, said he thinks a lot of people still are undecided.
“They haven’t seen anybody yet who stands out among them all,” he said this week.
That likely will make today’s Fox News-Republican Party of Iowa debate a key event leading up to Saturday, especially because it comes just two days before the straw poll.
“It’s very unique,” Ryan said.
Steve Grubbs, a Davenport consultant who ran straw poll operations for Steve Forbes in 1999 and Tommy Thompson in 2007, said even though the number of undecideds going to the straw poll is small, they may not remain that way in the run-up to the precinct caucuses, now scheduled for Feb. 8.
A change in the field — particularly with the expected entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — makes the race going into next year extremely fluid, he said.
“I think half are still movable,” said Grubbs, who is not aligned with a candidate this year. “People want to vote for a candidate who can win.”
He also noted that straw poll voters — 25,000 at its high point in 1999 — are still just a fraction of the more than 100,000 who can be expected to show up for the caucuses next February.
This Saturday, however, will be important for candidates to show Iowans — and potential funders — that they are still in the game.
“It’s a big deal to show continued viability,” Grubbs said.
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