Ames Straw Poll: Fun, Firearms and Elvis

2008 GOP presidential candidates vie for votes giving away food and even a gun

Aug. 9, 2007 — -- 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.

McCain's embattled campaign quickly followed Giuliani's lead, perhaps hoping to dilute the impact of a potential Romney win at the straw poll.

The name of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will not appear on the ballot -- even though he is mulling an '08 bid. Fred Thompson isn't showing up at Ames poll either, but he will begin campaigning in Iowa on Aug. 17.

Straw Poll Could Make or Break Second-Tier Candidates

For second-tier candidates, the straw poll is a double-edged sword. It's all about expectations: A strong showing could legitimize their candidacy and boost their chances of doing well in the January Iowa caucuses, but a poor finish could be disastrous to any campaign that's having trouble catching on.

"If I don't finish first or second, I'm not going to continue," Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, said Tuesday on MSNBC. "If I don't come in first or second, I'll say I tried, gave it my all, and I'll go home to Wisconsin."

In a last-minute attempt to erode Romney's strong support in Iowa just days before the Iowa straw poll, Huckabee targeted the front-runner Thursday, warning that supporting Romney would leave the party vulnerable to Democratic charges of flip-flopping that could endanger GOP chances of winning the White House in 2008.

"Let's assume everything is hunky-dory with his views now," Huckabee told "What's problematic is that it does represent a dramatic shift and the obvious thing that a Democrat[ic] opponent will do to him is to say he shifted once, will he shift again?"

The timing of the attack speaks to the importance Huckabee is placing on the straw poll.

"It shows that folks are willing to drive across the state, show up and cast a vote," Huckabee told ABC News Sunday following the Republican debate. "These are people who have to purposely come to Ames and say, 'We like Mike Huckabee.'"

Republican strategists agree that Huckabee needs to do well at the poll.

"If Huckabee doesn't do well, he may have to drop out," Reed said.

Other second-tier candidates are downplaying its outcome.

"It's our preseason game," said Bay Buchanan, a top adviser to Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. "This is a test of our team in Iowa to clarify our weaknesses and see where we are strong."

Straw Poll Important Political Test

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week had 26 percent of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers supporting Romney, with Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- who has not yet formally announced his candidacy or campaigned in the state -- at 14 and 13 percent, respectively. McCain and Huckabee tied with eight percent support each.

However, the straw poll is nothing like a scientific poll. Only 20,000 to 40,000 Iowans usually show up, and most of them are bussed in by campaigns. So candidates must vie for votes in unorthodox ways, offering food, music and a good time in exchange for votes.

"It's going to be about a 95-degree day, it's going to be hot and humid," McCormick said, noting that the straw poll must compete for attendance with the state fair in Des Moines. "This is not the way most people want to spend their Sunday, so they have to have some incentive to come and enjoy the day."

Iowa's Des Moines Register reported this week that supporters of Ron Paul, R-Texas, a long-shot presidential candidate, have already questioned the integrity of the voting procedure -- something political observers have dismissed.

"I think the integrity will be substantial," McCormick said, noting that volunteers from the county auditor's office will be on hand during the vote.

BBQ, Ice Cream and Firearms

Candidates are trying to attract attention and support with gimmicks that range from the intriguing to the questionable.

Supporters of Tommy Thompson, an avid motorcyclist, are completing a two-day, 400-mile motorcycle ride from Madison, Wis., to Ames, Iowa.

"We wanted to do this because we love Tommy, he is one of the most down to earth politicians that we've ever met," said Vicki Sanfelipo, organizer of the "Team Tommy" ride. Saturday, Thompson will don his biker clothes, climb onto his Harley and lead the bikers to the poll.

Huckabee will perform with his band Capitol Offense, Saturday, playing bass guitar to cover tunes of Elvis and the Beatles.

Most of the candidates will have barbecues and cold drinks.

Huckabee supporters are bringing watermelons to the poll from the governor's hometown of Hope, Ark. Among them will be Jackie May, who is bringing 200 watermelons from Arkansas to Iowa for the poll, among them a 150-pound watermelon.

In addition to having "Elvis" serve up ice cream straight from the Hunter campaign RV, his campaign will is reaching out to the NRA crowd, holding a free drawing for an $1,800 shotgun.

"He's a big outdoorsman and a huge advocate of Second Amendment gun rights," explained Hunter's campaign press secretary Roy Tyler, noting the campaign will have a firearms dealer on hand to make the transaction legal. "Any hunter in the world would drool over the thing."

ABC News' deputy political director Teddy Davis contributed to this report.