Cover Story

Heartland hustle

Campaign 2008 | In a wide-open field, Iowa state fair and straw poll are fertile ground for lesser-known GOP candidates

Issue: "All's fair at the fair," Aug. 25, 2007

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."

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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.


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