Wedged between Mike Huckabee's 150-pound watermelon, Tommy Thompson's Harley, Duncan Hunter's Elvis impersonator/ice cream man, and the 90 members of Mitt Romney's family, an actual real-life political event will be taking place in Ames, Iowa, tomorrow.
This is one of the very few marking points of this early period in the cycle, and while this one lacks any suspense about who's going to win (it's Mitt's world, and everyone else is just eating in it), it will bring some long-sought clarity to the GOP race -- and will thin the field. (At least three candidates want to finish second -- do the math.)
While this could mark the end of the dream for two or more candidates (and the fact that Huckabee, R-Ark., is dropping his dimpled grin to let loose speaks to the stakes), Romney, R-Mass., has just as much riding on the event as the lesser-known challengers. The former Massachusetts governor "has come under a furious assault from some of his rivals and the powerful network of abortion opponents in this state," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Michael Luo write from Iowa. "The result is that the campaign for this Republican event -- which, by itself, is of questionable political significance this year -- has created an environment with national implications for Mr. Romney."
The Washington Post's Michael Shear and Alec MacGillis write that Ames "has all the markings of a historic mismatch" -- meaning Romney needs not just to win, but to cover the spread. Why is everyone else so intimidated? Could be the $2 million in ads, or the 60 "super-volunteers" who draw monthly salaries to talk Romney up, or maybe it's just the Hickory Park barbecue. "Romney is waging what amounts to a one-sided financial war, bidding himself up against candidates who have raised less money during the entire campaign to date than Romney is likely to spend just for the straw poll," Shear and MacGillis write.
Take some time between the fried food and bites of barbecue to bid farewell to a few candidates, led by Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., who has said he'll drop out if he doesn't finish first or second. "Behind the fair-like atmosphere, the straw poll is a deadly serious exercise," per ABC's preview. "The GOP presidential field will almost certainly be smaller after the votes are counted in Ames -- and the balloting could solidify Romney's front-running status, or blow the race wide open."
Nobody is happier to see Ames draw the political oxygen than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who found herself on the defensive twice yesterday -- first on foreign policy, and then on her husband's record on gay rights.
Clinton said recently that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was wrong to make "blanket statements" ruling out nuclear weapons, but she sure seems to have made one herself in an April 2006 interview with Bloomberg's Al Hunt, when asked about Iran: "I have said publicly no option should be off the table, but I would certainly take nuclear weapons off the table," Clinton said. Per ABC's Jake Tapper, the Clinton campaign says it's different because she was answering as a senator -- not a presidential candidate (as if she hasn't been running since 2005).