It's finally here – the first vote in the Republican race for president, Saturday's Iowa Straw Poll on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames.
Mitt Romney is expected to come out on top and seize the national spotlight, but rivals Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are hoping that Romney -- who leads polls in Iowa and New Hampshire but trails nationally -- gets less of a bounce out of a Straw Poll win than he otherwise would due to their June 6 decision not to participate.
As for the second-tier candidates, they are hoping that a strong showing will propel them into contention. In years past, the Straw Poll has had the effect of winnowing the GOP field. In 1999, just two days after a poor showing at the Straw Poll, Lamar Alexander ended his campaign. Lackluster Straw Poll performances also played a role in Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole dropping out of the GOP race before ever reaching the January caucuses.
One candidate who has been explicit in raising the stakes for the Straw Poll is former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. The former Bush Cabinet member has spent more time in Iowa than anyone else. Back in June, Thompson told C-SPAN that the Straw Poll a "must win".
In order to attract supporters to Ames, well-funded campaigns not only cover the $35 entrance fee, but also provide transportation, food, and entertainment. All proceeds from ticket sales, tent sales, and parking go to the Iowa Republican Party.
The Politico's Jonathan Martin reports that campaign aides for Romney and Sam Brownback have told the Iowa GOP they each are bringing over 100 buses to Ames Saturday. "An Iowa Republican said that Romney was bringing about 125 onto the campus of Iowa State University and Brownback just over 100. Tommy Thompson is bringing the third most, about 75. All told, state party officials are planning on the arrival of 375 buses," Martin reports.
The Straw Poll, which will be emceed by Laura Ingraham, is open to anyone with a valid Iowa driver's license, state-issued I.D., military I.D., or student I.D. from an Iowa college or university. To prevent Straw Poll participants from voting more than once, the voter will receive only one ballot and his or her thumb will be dipped in indelible ink. Votes will be cast using Diebold Optical Scan Machines. Volunteers from the Story County's Auditor office will staff all voting machines during the balloting. Once the voting ends at 7:00 pm ET, the ballots and vote counters will be moved by the Story County Auditor and the State Auditor to the tabulation room. The State Auditor will report the results at or around 8:00 pm ET inside Hilton Coliseum. The 11 candidate names appear on the ballot in alphabetical order.
Please note that while Giuliani and McCain will not be speaking -- and while they are not investing resources into the event -- their names will appear on the Straw Poll ballot because the Iowa Republican Party includes anyone officially in the race on its ballot.
Fred Thompson also will be on the ballot because the Iowa GOP incorrectly assumed that he would be in the race by Straw Poll time. (Typically, the Republican Party of Iowa limits its ballot to official candidates). Thompson will not be present at the Straw Poll but he plans to make his first trip to Iowa as a presidential prospect on Friday, Aug. 17.