Ames Straw Poll: Fun, Firearms and Elvis

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is bringing an 150-pound watermelon from his hometown.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., will have an Elvis impersonator handing out ice cream freshly made out of the back of his campaign RV.

Welcome to the only-in-Iowa political circus known as the Ames straw poll, where political fortunes are made and broken -- and everyone eats a little too much fried food and barbecue.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., is set to ride into Ames on a Harley -- with 150 of his closest friends. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is bringing along three bands -- and some 90 family members. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is serving up snow cones, coffee and pastries. And Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., will have a country western singer serenading supporters with songs about the troops.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., meanwhile, will have Famous Dave's barbecue on hand to distribute in his air-conditioned tent -- and is showcasing something of a "pro-life" all-star team: Terri Schiavo's brother, and Norma McCorvey -- "Roe" of Roe v. Wade -- who's now a prominent anti-abortion rights activist.

But behind the fair-like atmosphere, the straw poll is a deadly serious exercise. 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.

Expectations High for Romney

Romney has been campaigning hard in Iowa. One of his five sons, Josh Romney, 31, is driving a motor home dubbed the Mitt Mobile across Iowa, making stops in all of Iowa's 99 counties before the poll.

"If Romney wins he's the undisputed champ," said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. "After this weekend, when Romney wins -- even if it's by 10 votes -- he's another step to being the candidate of the social conservatives."

"Romney has said he's making an effort to win it -- so if he doesn't do well, that's going to have a major negative impact on his campaign," said James McCormick, chairman of the political science department at Iowa State University.

But with only days to go before the vote, Romney's campaign is downplaying expectations.

"In politics, a win by one is a landslide," said Kevin Madden, a Romney campaign spokesman. "Our focus on Ames is on organization. It's an opportunity to grow our organization and make thousands of voter contacts in Iowa, and that will have a residual effect in January at the caucuses. We want to win, but we don't necessarily have to run up the score."

Giuliani and McCain to Skip Straw Poll

Another wild card to watch Saturday is how the supporters of the candidates who don't make the trip to Ames decide to vote. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Sen. Fred Thompson, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, are skipping the straw poll -- but their names will be on the ballot anyway.

"I'm putting my faith in Iowa caucus-goers that they'll base their decision on the candidate's record rather than who participates in a nonbinding straw poll in August," said Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime in June.

Giuliani's campaign said participating in the straw poll might cost the candidate $3 million -- money the campaign said would be better saved for the caucuses themselves in January.

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