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."
One thing in Bachmann's favor is that other prominent Republican contenders such as frontrunner Mitt Romney are not officially competing in Ames. Neither is Jon Huntsman or Newt Gingrich. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry is not planning to throw his hat into the campaign ring until Saturday, when he delivers a speech in South Carolina, so he will not be on the straw poll ballot either, but write-in votes for all are possible.
Bachmann is clearly hoping to follow Mike Huckabee's path to success in 2007. The former Arkansas governor finished a surprising second four years ago thanks to massive backing from home-schoolers and evangelicals, two groups that tend to gravitate toward Bachmann. Despite losing that day to Mitt Romney, Huckabee's silver medal felt like gold.
That brings us to the third element of Ames. If passion and organization are the first two key ingredients, the third is expectations. Campaigns go out of their way to downplay their expectations for the straw poll, hoping to set themselves up to argue that whatever their eventual finish, they have done well. Pawlenty, for instance, has repeatedly said that any finish higher than sixth -- where he placed in the Des Moines Register poll in late June -- would be a good one. That, of course, is nonsense: If Pawlenty comes in, say, fifth, on Saturday behind Bachmann, Paul, Santorum and Cain, it would be a disastrous result for him. All the same, expectations for Pawlenty and Paul are low compared to Bachmann's.
"I think she needs a convincing win," Robinson said. "She has campaigned in the state stressing her Iowa roots that she was born here, so you have the hometown girl who is leading in the polls against a field of candidates participating in the event who aren't necessarily blowing people's doors off, so people expect her to win handily, but it might be very difficult to do."
Whether she wins or not, the consensus heading into the straw poll appears to be that Bachmann and Pawlenty and Paul -- in some order -- will form the top three in Ames. Pawlenty, because of his organizational might, looks set for a formidable showing, while Paul could ultimately spring a surprise over the Minnesotans, according to one top Republican operative in Iowa.
"It's nature versus nurture. Bachmann is nature: She has the charisma, the energy and people are going to vote for her, so she's not organizing as much," the source said. "Pawlenty is the nurture candidate: He's got the organization. I'm an organizational guy. I think that can always make up for it. But Ron Paul has both nature and nurture. He has an exciting base, and he's been able to build on it with his organization."
"I think if Paul wins it's going to be symbolic," the source continued. "We haven't seen people like Romney and Perry here, so people might cast a symbolic vote and try to send a message to say, 'He's not going to win the nomination, but hey, I really like what Paul is saying.'"
No matter who comes out on top, critics suggest that the straw poll is not all that important. Only around 15,000 people usually vote in the event, compared with around 120,000 in the Iowa caucuses come the winter. In addition, victory in the straw poll is hardly a guarantee of success in the caucuses, or in the GOP primary. Romney won in Ames four years ago, but he lost the caucuses and the GOP nomination. Instead, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who came in 10th in Ames after not competing in the straw poll, ultimately secured the Republican presidential nomination. There have only been two Ames winners who have gone on to win the nomination.
But on Saturday, all 10 Republican candidates will be watching the straw poll results closely: The nine whose names will appear on the ballot -- Bachmann, Pawlenty, Paul, Santorum, Cain, Romney, Huntsman, Gingrich and Thad McCotter -- and Perry, whose outside group has been flooding Iowa events this week to urge voters to cast write-in votes for him.
And whatever happens, at least there will be barbecue, pizza, Randy Travis, Dairy Queen blizzards ... and a petting zoo, too.