Ames, Iowa–With hours to go before voting in the Republican presidential “straw poll” is closed and the counting here at the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University begins, signs are strong that the final outcome tonight will be Ron Paul in first place and Michele Bachmann a close second.
Or it could just as easily be Bachmann first and Paul second. It all depends on which of the two GOP contenders with the most fervent followers in the Hawkeye State has managed to get them to vote in the non-binding “beauty contest” Saturday.
An estimated 15,000 Iowa voters paid the $30 each to participate in the quadrennial event that never fails to attract international press attention. As candidates arrived in the morning, the Iowa State campus here swarmed with activity. Tents manned by supporters of U.S. House Members Paul of Texas and Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota were by far drawing the most interest, as fans swarmed to pick up buttons and T-shirts and enjoy delicacies ranging from popcorn to ice cream to cinnamon rolls. (Longshot contender and Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter did surprisingly well attracting visitors to his tent without goodies or trinkets; the lawmaker was playing his signature bass guitar with a rock band).
With his campaign quarterbacked by GOP State Central Committeeman Drew Stivers, Paul can count on a strong turnout that will included non-Republicans as well as college students (Party rules limit participation in the straw vote to registered Iowa voters, but not exclusively to Republicans).
Most of the veteran GOP hands who spoke to HUMAN EVENTS gave Paul the edge because of his crack organization and reputation as the “Babe Ruth of Straw Votes.” Team Paul was able to generate strong turnouts that resulted in his comfortable wins in straw votes at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Bachmann can count on a strong infantry from Iowa’s large and vigorous “tea party” organization and from many of the cultural conservatives who fueled Mike Huckabee’s second-place showing in the straw vote in ’07 and his dramatic upset in the Iowa Caucuses in ’08. Her state chairman is State Sen. Greg Sorenson, a key pointman on the pro-life legislation and other cultural conservative issues in the legislature. Last year, led by 2008 Huckabee state chairman Bob Vander Plaatz, cultural conservatives flexed their muscle by leading the successful vote for “no” on retention of three state supreme court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage.
“I know most of the leaders of the ‘Tea Party of Iowa,’ and most of them are in the Bachmann camp,” said Urbandale insurance-man Paul Zietlow, whose Westside Conservative Club breakfast is one of the best-attended events for conservative activists in the Des Moines area. (Zietlow himself backs Georgia businessman Herman Cain for President).
Bachmann’s stumbling block in Ames is that the so-called “Huckabee base” of social conservatives is being drained by the candidacies of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and by Cain.
The race for third could be critical to whether Tim Pawlenty is able to continue as a viable candidate. The former Minnesota governor has invested considerable time and energy in the straw vote. On the Friday before the voting, Pawlenty hosted a pizza party on the campus that attracted 200 supporters. However, it was clear as the candidates prepared to address participants and press that the passion for and size of his following in Ames was nowhere near Paul’s or Bachmann’s.
So with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman not participating, the straw vote outcome appears to be Paul-Bachmann—or Bachmann-Paul.
The difficulty in predicting a final outcome in Ames is compounded by the number of participants who told HUMAN EVENTS Saturday that they were still undecided.
“No, I haven’t decided and haven’t paid my $30 to vote yet—I’m conservative!” State Rep. Lee Hein of Monticello, Iowa told us, “I’m still listening and trying to make up my mind. I just hope we get behind who’s nominated in the end and then we go on to beat Obama. Regardless of what happens in Ames, that’s what we have to all remember.”