Don’t look for Fergus Cullen at the Iowa GOP Straw Poll.
The former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman would be persona non grata if he showed up, so he has no plans to be anywhere near Ames.
Not even to handle tin foil hat concessions.
Cullen is the author of an op-ed piece that angered defenders of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses. Their anger was misplaced, Cullen said during a telephone interview earlier this week.
The target of his criticism – and specifically his reference to Iowans wearing “tin foil hats” – wasn’t the caucuses or even today’s Iowa GOP Straw Poll in Ames.
“My ‘tin foil hats’ comment was referring specifically to the epidemic of birtherism within the party,” Cullen said, “and not, say, about social conservatives, but the three-quarters of Iowa Republicans who couldn’t say whether Barack Obama is American.
“A Public Policy Polling survey found that 48 percent of Iowa Republicans don’t believe President Obama was born in the United States, and another 26 percent said they weren’t sure if he was or if he wasn’t. It’s hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wear tin foil hats.”
Despite the outrage his comments caused, Cullen, who operates a communications firm in Dover, New Hampshire, said he “heard from lots of Iowans who agreed, rank-and-file Republicans.”
Cullen made clear he wasn’t being critical of Iowa’s precinct caucuses, but expressing a concern that the caucus process has been “hijacked by one part of the Republican base in a way that makes it less representative than it once was.”
A big fan of the Iowa-New Hampshire first-in-the-nation tradition, Cullen worries that if the caucuses lose their legitimacy it will hurt New Hampshire, too.
“I have nothing against Iowa,” he said. “I believe the caucuses have served the nation well, generally. I’m a believer in the early state process.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are like two old high school friends who have grown apart as the have gotten older,” he said. “I’m saddened by that.”
New Hampshire political leaders have the same concerns as their Iowa counterparts about maintaining first-in-the-nation status, Cullen said.
“How does it end? It ends when candidates don’t feel the have equal opportunity to win the nomination,” Cullen said. “When they don’t believe they have a level playing feel, an equal opportunity to earn support.
If some of them stop participating and there is only a partial field of candidates competing in the straw poll and the caucuses “a victory has much less legitimacy and gets discounted by national media and the whole thing falls apart,” according to Cullen.
“Iowa is walking up to that line, at least on the Republican side,” he warned.
The signs are there, Cullen said. Mitt Romney, who went all-in in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, isn’t participating in the straw poll and has done little campaigning in Iowa. Likewise, Jon Huntsman isn’t competing in Iowa.
“Look, Tim Pawlenty could get knocked out of this race by a silly straw poll,” Cullen said. In 1999, Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle were knocked out of the nomination race by the straw poll “before a real voter had cast a real ballot anywhere.”
If the same thing happens this year and Obama gets re-elected, Cullen predicted “four years from now we’ll look at this process again and sensible Republicans candidates will say, ‘If I’m not going to be the evangelical candidate there’s no point in continuing in Iowa’ and the majority of them will probably stay away.”
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