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CAMPAIGN 2012

Iowa straw poll is first test for GOP hopefuls

But two think it is not worth all the effort

Workers prepared yesterday for the Republican presidential straw poll today in Iowa. Seven of nine candidates are participating. Workers prepared yesterday for the Republican presidential straw poll today in Iowa. Seven of nine candidates are participating. (Brendan Hoffman for The Boston Globe)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / August 13, 2011

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AMES, Iowa - Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is luring voters with jars of jam made from the peach trees in his yard. Representative Ron Paul of Texas is offering supporters a shot at dunking a Ben Bernanke look-alike in a tank of cold water. And Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has lined up country crooner Randy Travis to raise the roof of her air-conditioned tent.

Today’s straw poll - a folksy blend of county fair and political theater - is a major benchmark in the GOP race that caps weeks of on-the-ground campaigning by seven of the nine Republican presidential candidates on the ballot.

They have criss-crossed the cornfields of Iowa by bus and by plane, popping into churches, diners, and living rooms to persuade thousands of voters to make the pilgrimage from all corners of the state and cast a ballot in their favor.

“We’re going to have one whale of a time,’’ Bachmann promised a group in front of a Cedar Rapids hotel last Saturday. “Come out! We’ll have a petting zoo. And bring your friends.’’

The straw poll is a Republican tradition beloved by many Iowans who make a serious effort to meet and question every candidate before pledging their support.

But the daylong affair held at Iowa State University has also been criticized as a carnival side show amounting to nothing more than a fund-raiser for the state party, which charges $30 for a ticket to vote - or what critics disparage as a poll tax. The better-funded campaigns pick up the tab for their supporters.

“It is a farce,’’ said Fergus Cullen, former Republican Party chairman in New Hampshire. “You have campaigns who are buying the right to vote.’’

Straw poll haters, including some Iowa Republicans, say the quadrennial custom has become increasingly irrelevant in determining the winner of the Iowa caucuses in February, let alone the party’s presidential nominee.

Case in point: Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts blew more than $1 million to win the straw poll four years ago only to have his victory overshadowed by the second-place finish of former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who went on to win the caucuses.

The 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, was on the ballot but made no effort to court straw poll voters. Lesson learned. Romney, too, is skipping it this year - as is former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah.

The poll holds no official significance but nevertheless winnows the crowded slate of Republican presidential candidates by testing their campaigns’ ability to turn out supporters. It has the power to fuel or kill candidates’ momentum.

“The Iowa straw poll is in and of itself a totally meaningless event that has tremendous political impact,’’ said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “It’s a fact of life, but one of these facts of life that probably shouldn’t be. It’s all part of the idiosyncrasies of the presidential election process.’’

Beneath the down-home atmospherics are the underpinnings of a sophisticated political machinery that’s been at work for months - or in former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s case, for a year - plotting a winning strategy.

Pawlenty, whose viability hinges on winning or placing a close second, has drawn from Romney’s 2007 playbook, hiring Romney’s straw poll strategist and moving into Romney’s Iowa headquarters, and has perhaps the best organized team, Republican observers say.

But Bachmann, Pawlenty’s key rival in this socially conservative state, has routinely drawn larger crowds at her events this week.

“The straw poll isn’t the final word, but it’s a benchmark along the way,’’ Pawlenty said in an interview. “We hope to show progress from the back of the pack to the front of the pack.’’

The once homey event that drew just 5,000 people in the 1980s has evolved to one marked by over-the-top amenities as candidates try to one-up each other not only during their political speeches but with food and entertainment.

Millionaire businessman Steve Forbes raised the ante in 1999 by wowing the record 24,000-person crowd with an air-conditioned tent complete with French doors and carpeting in his bid to defeat George W. Bush, who had paid $43,500 for prime tent real estate. Bush won.

This year Paul’s campaign shelled out $31,000 for the most central location, making him the highest bidder of all the candidates.

Republican leaders such as Cullen in New Hampshire - a state whose primary competes with Iowa for early attention - said that with major candidates bowing out of this round, Iowa is on the cusp of losing its validity, especially as religious conservatives have taken over a faction of the party here.

“When candidates don’t feel they all have an equal opportunity to win, some of them start to not participate. And when major candidates don’t participate, people start to discount the results as not a real contest.’’

Cullen, who was a junior staff member on the 1995 presidential campaign of former senator Phil Gramm of Texas, said they had put a huge effort into the straw poll, organizing busloads of voters from out of state.

“Phil Gramm did everything possible to scam this system in 1995 because it was an open invitation to do so,’’ Cullen said. “If you could get 20 people on a bus from Detroit, it was worth it.’’

The Republican Party of Iowa has tried to temper criticism by tightening the rules. Since 2007, all voters must show ID to prove they are Iowa residents. Voters’ index fingers are also marked with indelible ink after they cast their ballots to prevent fraud.

“It’s grassroots politics at its finest,’’ said Wes Enos, a member of the state Republican Party central committee. “Think of it as a big pyramid scheme. You can literally shake enough hands to be successful in Iowa without having millions of dollars.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.