The Peach State prepares for a political frenzy as a pair of January runoffs determine the balance of the Senate—and the shape of the presidency
AMES and DES MOINES, Iowa-On a sweltering August afternoon in Des Moines, thousands of sweaty carnival-goers creep along the scorching blacktop at the Iowa State Fair. Some stand in line for deep-fried Twinkies or a giant sausage on a stick, while others file past a life-size cow sculpted out of 600 pounds of pure cream Iowa butter.
At a booth nearby, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dons a green apron that reads: "The other white meat." Sweat trickles down his tanned face as he flips thick pork chops for cameras and a growing crowd. When he drops a chop on the ground, he promptly slaps it back on the grill, declaring: "Five second rule." The crowd loves it, and the cameras click.
At a ticket booth at the fair entrance, GOP presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson walks to the counter alone and unceremoniously buys three tickets. "Hello, I'm Tommy Thompson," he says to a friendly cashier who doesn't seem to catch the significance. "OK," she says with a polite smile. "That will be $30."
That's Iowa in August for Republican presidential candidates-for some a boost, for others a bust.
This year it was a boost for Romney: The former governor of Massachusetts easily won the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 11, one day after his appearance at the fair. Thousands showed up at Iowa State University in Ames for the carnival-like event, where candidates courted voters in the non-binding poll traditionally seen as an early indicator of a candidate's strength on the eve of an election season.
GOP frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain didn't participate in the event this year: Though their names remained on the ballot, both predictably drew few votes in the poll. Romney capitalized on the opportunity to stand alone in the top tier and solidify support in the state that holds the first Republican caucus in the nation.
But while Romney took the top spot, the event was an even bigger boost for the runner-up: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister with low campaign funds and little mainstream recognition. Huckabee said he spent about $100,000 on the straw poll. Romney spent some $2 million on Iowa television ads alone.
An elated Huckabee summed up his unexpected second-place finish the next morning: "This really was feeding the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves-an amazing kind of day for us."
The day was significant for other candidates as well, including Congressman Ron Paul, a Texas Republican with libertarian views and fiercely loyal supporters. Though they couldn't vote in the straw poll, dozens of Paul supporters drove from all over the country to persuade Iowans to support the candidate with a message unlike any other in the race.
Ron Paul advocates immediately withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and believes in minimal intervention abroad, even for national security. On the prospect of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, Paul told WORLD that the United States "shouldn't get hysterical," but should work to negotiate with the nation.
He also believes in extremely limited government and drastically reducing government spending: He proposes eliminating major federal agencies like the Department of Education, the Federal Reserve, and the Internal Revenue Service. "It's true that I'm very libertarian, but that's because the Constitution is libertarian," he says. "And the founders never advocated running our lives and running the economy."
The candidate has drawn limited media attention and small numbers in national polls, and conservatives sometimes dismiss him: In late June, Iowans for Tax Relief and the Iowa Christian Alliance sponsored a GOP presidential forum to discuss tax relief and social issues. They excluded only Paul, an anti-tax Baptist, saying he was not a viable presidential candidate.
But Paul's campaign staged its own rally on the same day and drew at least as many participants as the forum, according to local media reports.
Those supporters are part of Paul's vast base of grassroots activists who coalesce mostly online. That virtual enthusiasm has translated into real money: Paul has more cash on hand than McCain's fledgling campaign. In the second quarter, he raised some $2.4 million from supporters attracted to his drumbeat of limited government.
Nimitt Chudasama followed that drumbeat nearly 700 miles to Iowa. On the eve of the straw poll, Chudasama stood outside the fair gates in 100-degree heat wearing a bright yellow
T-shirt that read: "Ron Paul: Join the Revolution." The 28-year-old health-care analyst drove through the night from Nashville, Tenn., to urge Iowans to vote for Paul in the straw poll.
Like many Paul supporters here, Chudasama has never spoken to the candidate's campaign. He works in conjunction with a Nashville group of supporters organized online. They print their own T-shirts, make their own signs, and write their own literature. "We've done all this without anybody asking us," he says.
Chudasama isn't a traditional Republican either. "I used to think I was a Democrat," he says, holding a stack of Paul campaign literature to give passersby. During the last election, Chudasama volunteered for Democrat Al Gore's campaign. But after learning about Paul after the election, Chudasama changed his mind: "I realized I was a Constitutionalist."
Strictly upholding the Constitution is the core of Paul's political philosophy: The congressman won't vote for legislation that isn't expressly authorized by the Constitution, and on Capitol Hill he's known as "Dr. No."
Some of those "no" votes have put him at odds with some social conservatives: He's voted against government regulation of the internet, including restricting pornographic websites. Though he is pro-life and advocates overturning Roe v. Wade, he has voted against bills that would make it a federal crime to transport a teenager across state lines for an abortion in order to avoid parental notification laws. Paul told WORLD that's because abortion should be a state issue, not a federal issue.
That diversity of Paul's views draws a diversity of supporters: conservative Christians, anti-NAFTA libertarians, anti-war Republicans, and even marijuana-smokers who hope Paul would legalize the drug.
Chudasama says it's also that diversity that draws so many young people to Paul, who, at 71, is the oldest candidate in the race. "They believe in liberty," he says. "It's not about making decisions for everybody else."
A few hours later, as the sun goes down and the humidity remains steady, a diverse group of Paul supporters mingles outside Bali Satay House, a hole-in-the-wall bar and Indonesian restaurant in downtown Ames. Inside, a band plays loudly and a small crowd mostly under 30 sips beer and shoots pool. They're all waiting for Paul to drop by the event dubbed "Ronstock."
Outside, an RV painted to resemble an American flag sits parked on the street, drawing honks and hollers from people driving by. Linda Hunnicutt, a 67-year-old self-proclaimed "Ron Paul groupie," drove the bus here with a friend from Asheville, N.C., to support Paul in the straw poll. The trip took two days.
Hunnicutt has driven through 18 states in the RV plastered with signs like "Say yes to Dr. No," "Live free or die hard," and "Honk if you speak English."
Sitting on a small couch inside, Hunnicutt points to her traveling companion: a 14-year-old capuchin monkey named Buddy. The black-capped monkey roams the RV and leans out the passenger's side window over a hand-painted message: "Don't monkey around-Vote for Ron Paul." He's become a mini-celebrity on the campaign trail.
Hunnicutt, a grandmother of five, maintains GrannyWarriors.com to chronicle her campaign travels. Stickers on her RV rail against the National Animal Identification Act, a bill that would require farmers to implement a costly electronic tracking system for their cattle. Hunnicutt opposes the legislation, and so does Paul. "We need someone who's going to do something for everyone," she says of her support for the candidate.
On the sidewalk outside, Trent Feuerbach isn't worried about cattle, but he is worried about abortion and gun rights. The pro-life Christian and father of three took a week's vacation to drive here from Springs, Texas, with other Paul supporters.
Feuerbach grew up in a traditional Republican home but says he's become disillusioned with the GOP: "The Republican Party has abandoned me and my family over the last 20 years." He says Republicans have "moved left on everything," and he laments the current field of front-runners.
The small crowd on the sidewalk suddenly breaks up as Paul enters the tiny club through a back door. They greet him like a rock star, standing on bar stools and chairs to get a better view of the mild-mannered candidate who expresses affection for the young crowd: "I get my energy from you," he tells them.
The crowd roars as Paul ends with some of his booming signature lines about government: "Don't tax us, just let the economy roll!" But the most raucous applause comes with his final line: "Just leave me alone and get out of my life!"
The next morning, still-energetic Paul supporters wave signs in the parking lot at the straw poll nearly two hours before voting begins. Meanwhile, armies of volunteers and staff members set up tents for the eight presidential candidates on site today.
Workers at Tom Tancredo's tent are busy hanging up a banner with the candidate's talking points: "End illegal immigration. No amnesty. Secure our borders. Pro-life and second amendment."
Nearby at the tent of Rep. Duncan Hunter, the candidate's press secretary is stacking up ears of corn for grilling. Volunteers at Mike Huckabee's area are unloading some 150 watermelons the candidate shipped in from his home state of Arkansas.
But the biggest show is on the north side of the grounds, where Romney's well-funded campaign has set up a rock-climbing wall and inflatable moon walk for children. Technicians check the sound on a large stage with concert lighting where local bands will play all day.
Just across the sidewalk, Sen. Sam Brownback is making straw-poll history with the first air-conditioned tent at the event. By lunchtime, throngs of people will pack the huge party tent seeking free food and refuge from another day of searing heat.
Larry Speed hopes to be finished with voting by then. The 61-year-old retired veteran from Des Moines rode to Ames on the morning of the straw poll with his wife on a bus chartered for voters by Romney. Now Speed stands in a long line waiting to pick up voting tickets paid for by Romney's campaign.
That doesn't mean Speed will be voting for Romney today: "I'm leaning towards him, but I'm not sure." He's also interested in Tancredo, but doesn't know what the candidate stands for beyond stopping illegal immigration: "With Tancredo, it's illegals, illegals, illegals."
Back at the Brownback tent, one issue is dominating as well. The campaign is zeroing in on the Christian, pro-life vote: Christian bands play praise music. A ministry leader prays for revival in America. An emcee introduces two famous pro-lifers to endorse Brownback: Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo, and Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade. (McCorvey is now actively pro-life.)
Several speakers acknowledge that other candidates are pro-life, but maintain Brownback is the most effective pro-life candidate. "He will lead us to the Promised Land," says McCorvey.
Brownback has worked hard to bill himself as the top choice for social conservatives, but he has met stiff competition from Huckabee. Phil Shanklin, a financial planner from Tennessee, stands near a table of watermelons at Huckabee's tent, talking about his support of the former governor.
Shanklin likes the pro-life Huckabee's positions on social issues like abortion but also appreciates his concern for the working poor. "He's got a heart to help people with limited means," he says. "And he's proving you can be a happy conservative."
Huckabee looks happy on the nearby stage, where he's 45 minutes into an hour-long set with his band, Capitol Offense. (Huckabee plays bass in the band made up of staffers and their spouses.) In between songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Free Bird," the candidate entertains the crowds with one-liners and jokes about his limited campaign resources. "I can't buy you-I don't have the money," he tells the amused crowd. "I can't even rent you."
A few hours later, Huckabee looks even happier when he learns that he's edged out Brownback for second place in the poll results. And though Brownback placed a respectable third, the sunburned volunteers in his tent are deflated at the news. A few wipe away tears.
Brownback dashes into the tent to thank the volunteers for their work and to assure them the campaign will move forward. But he quickly leaves without greeting supporters or the media.
The next day, Brownback told ABC News: "We wanted to win it, but we're still in it."
Meanwhile, no one in Paul's tent is crying over news that their underdog candidate came in fifth out of 11. Supporters are pleased with the news, especially considering most pundits expected Paul to place lower.
But as upbeat supporters trickle away from the tent in the dark, an enthusiastic volunteer reminds them the work is far from over: "Remember to do something for Ron Paul every week!"
- The term "straw poll" comes from 17th-century writer John Seldon, who said: "Take a straw and throw it up into the air-you may see by that which way the wind is."
- Since the Iowa Straw Poll began in 1979, the winner of the poll has gone on to win the Republican nomination two out of four times.
- Televangelist Pat Robertson won the straw poll in 1987. George H.W. Bush went on to win the Republican nomination in 1988.
- In 1999, organizers decided to allow only Iowans to vote in the poll. Before then, candidates could bus in supporters from other states.
- Organizers began using indelible ink to mark voters' fingers after learning some voters were washing off hand stamps and voting multiple times.
- The straw poll serves as a major fundraiser for the Iowa GOP: This year the party raised over $900,000 by selling 26,000 tickets for $35 each. But most voters don't pay their own way: Candidates buy blocks of tickets to give away, and hope voters cast ballots for them.