The Republican presidential campaign descends in full force on Iowa this week, as the state prepares to host a straw poll that could start winnowing the field of candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
As a prelude to the Aug. 13 straw poll, as many as nine of the Republican candidates will participate in a nationally televised debate in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11. A popular stop for the White House contenders also will be the Iowa State Fair, a major event in the state that will hold the nation’s first nomination contest early next year.
The straw poll’s importance took a hit when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in most surveys of Republican-leaning voters, decided against actively competing in it. Still, the contest -- which doubles as a fundraiser for the state Republican Party -- is viewed as a potential springboard by several other candidates, including former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas.
“It’s an important piece in regard to momentum for candidates and how they can use that momentum for making the case they need to make to the American people and also for fundraising,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters on an Aug. 3 conference call. He said he anticipates the party’s field won’t be settled until Labor Day.
While the straw poll is designed to gauge the early popularity and organizational ability of Republican presidential hopefuls, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of who will win the party’s caucuses in Iowa next year. Romney finished first in the 2007 straw poll, then former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the Republican caucuses in January 2008. Television evangelist Pat Robertson won the 1987 straw poll, while then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas triumphed in the 1988 caucuses.
Participating in the straw poll requires $30 admission tickets, so better-financed candidates often pick up that cost and provide bus rides to the venue at Iowa State University in Ames. They also lure supporters with free food and entertainment. Pawlenty plans to serve Famous Dave’s barbeque at his straw poll headquarters, while Bachmann will have country singer Randy Travis serenading her supporters.
The state’s Democratic Party doesn’t hold a comparable event, and the Republican straw polls attract only a small fraction of Iowa voters. In 2007, about 14,300 ballots were cast, and Romney won with just 4,516 votes.
Money at Stake
“For better or worse, the straw poll is a factor” in the Republican presidential race, said David Yepsen, a former political writer at the Des Moines Register who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Some candidates, if they perform poorly, “will see their money dry up and that will bring an end to their campaign,” he said.
Bachmann, 55, began a week of campaigning leading up to the straw poll by attending church services in the Des Moines area yesterday and speaking at a county party fundraising event. In her remarks, she repeatedly mentioned the “horrific downgrade” by Standard & Poor’s on Aug. 5 of the U.S. credit rating to AA+ from AAA.
“The president has failed to inspire confidence in our markets,” she told more than 50 people gathered at the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center.
Touting her “titanium spine” for fighting for what she believes in, Bachmann also reiterated her call for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner because of his handling of the U.S. economy and the nation’s debt.
Pawlenty told reporters today that Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress made the nation’s debt situation “exponentially worse” by boosting spending.
“He seems un-capable or unwilling to lead in a concrete, bold way on the most pressing financial issues of our time,” Pawlenty told reporters over breakfast at a restaurant in Urbandale, Iowa.
Pawlenty, citing the “psychological effect” of the downgrade and issues with European finances, called this a “very dangerous moment in terms of people’s outlook.”
Bachmann’s straw poll performance will demonstrate whether her campaign has the organizing muscle to back up popularity that showed her essentially tied with Romney in Iowa in a June poll by the Des Moines Register, Yepsen said.
“I wonder if she can live up to her expectations,” he said.
Iowa political analysts have predicted Paul, 75, will finish significantly better than his fifth-place showing four years ago, as he benefits from a more organized and larger network of supporters in the state. Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican website and a former state party political director, has predicted Paul could finish first or second.
The stakes in the straw poll may be highest for Pawlenty, 50. He has placed his greatest emphasis on Iowa since he began pursuing the presidency, yet the Des Moines Register poll showed him in sixth place. A poor straw poll showing would fuel the view that he is failing to gain traction in the state.
“It’s an important event, but it’s not the ultimate event,” Pawlenty told reporters today. “There’s a lot of uniqueness to the straw poll that gives some advantage to candidates like Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. But within that, we’re going to do well.”
Pawlenty said his fundraising wouldn’t be hurt by a third- place finish.
“It depends who the other two spots are. How close it is. If the other two, if you’re viewed not, in the long term, credible national candidates, then that’s less significant than if they are,” he said.
Asked if he was referring to Bachmann and Paul, Pawlenty said he didn’t mean to suggest they weren’t viable national candidates.
“If somebody came in first who the country didn’t view as a credible candidate, that’s less of a hurdle to going forward for fundraising and political support,” he said.
Besides the candidates, issue-advocacy groups are working to boost turnout at the straw poll. That has resulted in complaints about potential conflicts of interest because a paid organizer for Pawlenty’s campaign has also worked for Strong America Now, a group pushing for the candidates to pledge to cut federal debt.
The Iowa Republican Party listed nine candidates on the straw-poll ballot, which will also offer a write-in option for the first time. Candidates who rented space for the event were guaranteed a ballot spot. Besides Bachmann, Pawlenty and Paul, those were former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former pizza chain executive Herman Cain and Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. The ballot will also include Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is contemplating a bid, won’t be on the ballot.
Romney’s campaign announced June 9 that he wouldn’t compete in the straw poll, saying he would forgo all such non-binding contests. In his second White House bid, he’s playing a lower- key game in Iowa while focusing more on the first primary state of New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home and where he is well known because of his governorship in Massachusetts.
Romney, 64, isn’t ignoring Iowa this week. Along with participating in the debate, he is scheduled to attend an Aug. 10 house party in Des Moines and visit the state fair.
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