A petting zoo. Barbecue. Pizza. Randy Travis. Dairy Queen blizzards. It might sound like a party, but the festivities this Saturday in this college town in north-central Iowa are all about control of the party -- the Republican Party.
If the Masters golf tournament is a tradition unlike any other, then the Ames straw poll is an event unlike any other. Thursday night brings the second major debate of the Republican presidential contest. But two days later, presidential candidates will try to lure supporters from all over Iowa to come to Ames on a weekend in early August to cast a vote for them in an event that some see as a crucial test of political strength, but others dismiss as much ado about nothing. Beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder, and this year, with the fight for the GOP presidential nomination heating up -- especially after the debate in Ames -- three candidates appear to stand out.
Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, comes to Ames as the Republican frontrunner. She has surged up the polls in recent months, bolstered by a passionate group of supporters. She has overcome controversy over her migraines and an unflattering -- and some say unfair -- cover on the latest issue of Newsweek. Through it all, she has drawn massive crowds across the Hawkeye State, at times seeming more like a rock star than a politician.
Tim Pawlenty, another Minnesota native who served two terms as governor of that state, comes to Ames as the underdog. Despite a finely tuned campaign organization, his poll numbers have been dismal. Rather than trying to excite voters with Bachmann's fiery rallies and hyped-up style, Pawlenty has opted for a more subdued, measured approach, attempting to win their support by calmly emphasizing his experience and steady demeanor.
Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, comes to Ames as the outsider. While in the past the longtime lawmaker has been dismissed as a libertarian who has gained fervent supporters but little mainstream traction, he hopes to see a boost this weekend, thanks to his predictions on the economy. In 2007, he finished fifth in Ames, but this time around, with the economy still reeling from recession, voters may be swayed by the fact that Paul predicted economic troubles four years ago.
The thing is, warn the pundits, victory in Ames is as much about the strength of one's organization -- transporting people to the event from all over the state on a weekend summer day so they will vote for you -- as it is about the strength of one's support.
"While I think poll numbers have been driven by media appearances and hype surrounding certain campaigns and candidates, this is an organizational test, so can you actually get the people who like you and respond to your message to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Ames and cast a vote for you?" said Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican.
That is why, Robinson believes, an upset could be brewing on Saturday.
"Bachmann has a lot of passionate supporters, but the one thing her campaign doesn't have is that strong grass-roots organization that can actually mobilize people to Ames," he said. "So on the one hand you have Bachmann who has very passionate supporters and on the other hand you have a Pawlenty organization or even a Paul organization that's been working to turn out voters for this event for months now."
"She needs to make sure that passion translates to votes on Saturday."