GOP candidates take show on road on the eve of Iowa straw poll

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DES MOINES -- Bubba, the champion 2,768-pound Charolais bull, seemed immune to the commotion as he lounged indolently in the breeze of one of the many electric fans in the Cattle Building.

But elsewhere in Des Moines' fair grounds -- and across the Hawkeye State -- folks were more energized, gearing up for the highly anticipated if less-than-scientific straw poll that would give political junkies the first competitive scores in the quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Sarah Palin and a throng of reporters, cameras and boom microphones had interrupted the Cattle Building's tableaux of bovine beatitude just a little earlier. Her surprise visit to the fair, on the eve of the straw poll, rekindled speculation about her presidential ambitions, but the former vice-presidential nominee did little to clarify her intentions.

She told reporters that the presidential field had room to grow, that she hadn't yet made up her mind, but that she would let her supporters know -- perhaps as soon as September -- whether she would make a bid for the GOP nomination.

Some analysts have speculated that the former Alaska governor, despite her national status as a conservative superstar, would have a tough time adapting to Iowa's tradition of hyper-retail politics.

But speaking earlier in the week, just after Ms. Palin's last-minute Iowa visit was announced, Dave Funk, co-chair of the Polk County Republican Party, said she had the potential to profoundly shake up the race. "If Palin gets in, she could compete and be very difficult to beat," he said.

Ms. Palin spoke informally amid her wanderings through the vast fair complex on the outskirts of the Iowa capitol. Throughout the day, other Republicans, less coy about their ambitions to be the GOP standard-bearer, spoke to fairgoers amid the hay bales of the soapbox forum sponsored by the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cheerfully fended off a few hecklers amid a denunciation of the Obama administration. His reception was considerably better than that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who withstood a more vocal round of catcalls on the same stage the previous day.

Mr. Romney, winner of the straw poll four years ago, isn't competing this year. He headed back east shortly after the candidates' debate staged Thursday as a prelude to the balloting. So did former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, most recently President Barack Obama's ambassador to China, who had made his debate debut in the Ames event.

On his way to Iowa on Sunday was Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But his appearance in the state would follow visits today to South Carolina and New Hampshire that threatened to upstage the straw poll because of his widely anticipated announcement of his intent to join the big GOP field.

That group could shrink after today, however, as candidates falter in the straw poll that raises thousands of dollars for the state GOP.

A half-century after the Supreme Court ruled poll taxes to be unconstitutional, would-be voters in the poll -- or, more typically, the contenders' campaigns, which hand out access tickets -- will be charged $30 for each entrant to the Ames event as a precondition to casting a ballot.

However undemocratic and unscientific its structure, the straw poll gives obscure candidates an opportunity to raise their profiles in the presidential competition by a strong vote showing. By the same token, a faltering performance can doom candidacies, drying up fund-raising and media attention.

That is a fate which candidates such as Mr. Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hope to avoid when ballots are counted this evening.

One contender who appears immune to that danger is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose unique strain of libertarian isolationism has engendered a strong fundraising base and a core of enthusiastic followers. Those assets have raised expectations for his straw-poll performance, even though he remains a distinct long shot for GOP nomination.

Mr. Paul was the candidate who drew one of the larger crowds when he appeared Friday on the fairgrounds' informal outdoor stage. His fans cheered his promise to "mind our own business and bring the troops home." He also stated: "All that's been going on in Washington is spending and inflating. If we go back to the Constitution, we're going to save all of us."

Mr. Santorum attracted a somewhat smaller, though equally enthusiastic, crowd that cheered his sharp denunciations of the Obama administration.

Early on, Mr. Santorum bristled at the fact that "the national media has done a very good job of ignoring my campaign," noting that candidates such as Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Pawlenty -- both of them virtually tied with him near the bottom of early polling -- had nonetheless attracted significantly more press attention. But later, he said he expected that a respectable showing today would allow his campaign to forge ahead to the winter caucuses that open the formal delegate-selection process.

Turning his ire to the incumbent administration, Mr. Santorum warned against the perils of the national health care law approved by Congress last year. He said that if it were allowed to take full effect, "it is the end of liberty." The measure would create a dangerous sense of dependency on government, he said. "They will put you in chains called 'Obamacare,' and you will never break away."

Revisiting some points he made in the previous evening's debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich denounced the 12-member congressional committee now charged with finding deficit solutions as "a disastrously bad idea." He spoke of the need for bipartisan compromise in Washington, pointing out that, even as a fierce partisan, he was able to work with former President Bill Clinton on areas such as welfare reform.

Friday's largest crowd at the Register Soap Box waited for a speech by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has emerged as a consensus front-runner in the straw poll. After one of her regular campaign reminders to the crowd that she was born in Iowa, she said, "If you help me tomorrow in Ames, we're going to make Barack Obama a one-term president."

Following Ms. Bachmann's speech, Kirt Dimrick of Des Moines said he planned to make the trip today up Interstate 35 to vote for her in Ames. "I like her strong conservative values," he said. "It would be good to see a woman president in there."

Donna Paulsen of Cedar Rapids said she, too, would head to Ames for the straw poll. But she was still going back and forth on how she would cast her ballot. "I really like Newt Gingrich, but I really like her, too," she said just after Ms. Bachmann left the stage. "They're both good people. I see her on TV -- I watch Fox [News] -- and she's on there, and she says great things."

Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Mich., one of the more obscure candidates on the Ames ballot and in the overall GOP sweepstakes, had spoken from the same stage earlier in the day. In remarks long on policy and short on applause lines, Mr. McCotter warned that U.S. banks should be subjected to a much more rigorous stress test than those imposed by the Obama administration. Without such scrutiny, he said, the nation faced the danger of a deflationary decade on a much larger scale than that seen in Japan in the 1990s.

After acknowledging his round of applause, Mr. McCotter said: "Thank you, Iowa. I'm off to see the butter cow."

James O'Toole:


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