AMES – Saturday marks an important dress rehearsal for a cast of Republican presidential hopefuls working to land the starring role in a four-year White House run on the world’s biggest political stage.
The first big test in the GOP auditioning process take place when thousands of party activists converge on the Iowa State University campus to partake of food, drink, entertainment and speeches at a major fundraiser that also gives them the chance to deliver their collective reviews for the still-developing Republican players seeking to land the 2012 presidential nomination.
The much-anticipated straw poll balloting will give the first indication of each candidate’s organizational, fundraising and messaging skills – giving the top-tier finishers a major bounce in their bid to capture the first prize in the 2012 presidential nominating process that comes early next year with Iowa’s kickoff precinct caucuses while leaving some of the candidates who show poorly struggling to stay in the race.
“It’s still a very fluid race,” said Matt Strawn, Republican Party of Iowa chairman, shortly after eight candidates competed in a feisty, two-hour televised debate Thursday night. “It’s a very wide-open process. I think for the first time in a long time there’s probably more uncertainty over what the ultimate finish will be in Ames. I think people are deciding even at the last minute who to support.
“I’d like to say that most of the activists I talk to are at the dating phase when it comes to the candidates they’re talking to, not the marrying stage, so it’s still early in the process,” he said.
Most of the focus on the candidates who have been criss-crossing Iowa in recent months has been targeted at Democratic President Barack Obama, but a number of sub-plots have developed among the GOP combatants that have raised the stakes in a straw poll that most political observers view as a three-way race among Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Bachmann and Pawlenty continued their intrastate sparring on the C.Y. Stephens Auditorium stage Thursday night by taking some political shots at each other, while Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum locked horns over foreign policy and marriage issues, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – considered the frontrunner nationally though not competing in Saturday’s Iowa straw poll – defended his health-care record and tried to stay among the debate fray.
Part of Saturday’s intrigue also will center around whether tea party activists and social and religious conservatives will coalesce around one candidate like they did for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2007 or dilute their effect by spreading their support among a number of contenders. Paul likely will draw another strong showing from libertarian and fiscal conservatives, while others in the field will compete for the party’s establishment wing focused heavily on economic issues.
Bachmann, Pawlenty, Paul, Santorum, business executive Herman Cain of Georgia and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter have reserved space at Saturday’s straw poll site and are guaranteed slots on the ballot. In addition, Iowa GOP officials have agreed to include Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman on the ballot and provide a write-in option for unannounced Republicans like Perry and former Alaska Gov. and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Both Perry and Palin have taken steps to draw attention away from the Ames straw poll – Perry indicating he will announce his candidacy at the same time in South Carolina and then travel to Waterloo on Sunday for his first Iowa appearance and Palin bringing her national bus tour to the Iowa State Fair on Friday to create more buzz over her political future.
A number of the GOP candidates made their final appeals for support by participating in an old-fashioned political cattle call at the Des Moines Register’s “soap-box” booth at the state fairgrounds that was replete with all the sights, sounds and smells of the storied venue.
Cain told fair-goers the American people “have an appetite for a non-politician” whose never held public office and “I love it” when people tell him he doesn’t have a chance in the GOP race, noting “I’ve been going against the odds all my life, this is not new to me.”
Paul railed against U.S. foreign and monetary policies that have resulted in U.S. involvement in costly, “no-win wars” and “the miracle pill” of the government “counterfeiting our own money” when the solution is drastically shrinking the size of federal programs.
Santorum highlighted his record on foreign policy and sanctity of life issues in the U.S. Senate and acknowledged fair-goers who applauded his message, saying “Thank you, any applause, any time, I’ll take that. Please interrupt.” He said he is gaining support heading to Ames despite being roundly ignored by the national media in his 2012 bid.
Pawlenty took a turn at flipping pork chops at the pork producers’ tent and endorsed the chop on a stick as his fair food of choice.
Pat Barn of Jackson, Wis., had a congenial chat with the former neighboring state’s governor about the Green Bay Packers, but the conversion ended when he mentioned the Minnesota Vikings.
“Who?” said Barn. “That’s a nasty word. We’re not going to talk about the Vikings.”
Pawlenty said he was “really pleased” with the outcome of Thursday night’s debate. “I think it gave my campaign a boost,” he said. “I feel good about the straw poll tomorrow. Our goal is to move from the back of the pack to towards the front of the pack and I’m confident that we will.”
He said the Iowa contest now has become a ground game over who can get more Iowa supporters to travel to Story County to support their candidacies.
Bachmann’s tour bus arrived about a half hour late due to the near traffic gridlock outside the fairgrounds, and got a V.I.P. golf cart ride through the fair concourse before delivering a speech that spanned less than three minutes.
The Waterloo native stressed her Iowa connection by speaking “from one Iowan to another” in pledging to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
“This is where Barack Obama got his start. This is where he’s going to come to his end,” she said. “Tomorrow is the day we make the down payment on taking the country back.”
The crowd was heavily pro-Bachmann but one fair-goer punctuated her speech by saying “You’re going to wreck the country,” and another observer said “That was a two-minute speech. I waited for that?”
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