The time has arrived. This Saturday is the second biggest day in the Iowa political calendar. And being here gives your humble reporter a chance to see the behind the scenes working.
First of all, let's look at some history of the poll. In 1979, the older Bush placed first in the poll and the caucuses a few months later but was defeated by Ronald Reagan for the nomination. In 1987, Pat Robertson won the poll, Bob Dole won the caucus and VP George Bush received the nomination. In 1995, Phil Gramm won the straw poll and Bob Dole won the caucus and the nomination in the year to get beat by then President Clinton. It was just 8 years ago that one candidate won the poll, the caucus and the nomination and that was our sitting President. His chief rival for the nomination, Sen. John McCain not only skipped the Iowa straw poll but also the caucus. But in order to win the straw poll and to launch himself into the national spotlight, W's team spent $825,000. That is a ton of cash for something that folks say doesn't really count. I'm sure Bush's team is now saying that it was money well spent.
Now before some of you get upset about the idea that you have to pay $35 this year to cast a vote for your favorite, you must understand that the straw poll is a fundraising tool of the Iowa Republican Party. And it works great, as you can tell by those numbers.
This year the big spender is obviously Mitt Romney. Romney's team has spent $200,000 on a consulting firm just to coordinate logistics! He has between 130 and 150 buses (at least $1,000 to $1,500 each) reserved to take his supporters to Ames. And he is willing to pay for them to ride, providing a t-shirt to wear at the event and pay the $35 voting fee. Romney's campaign seems willing to spend up to $1 million to buy; I mean, win this poll. And you get no delegates from it. But you do get a ton of publicity.
Iowans have heard interview, after ad, after debate and most have come to the same conclusion. Not only do the GOP candidates want to be president but they want to be, on most issues, nothing but a clone of the president.
Oh, great 16 years of a Bush or Bush-lite.
How do these candidates interpret the poll numbers? Maybe that is the point. They don't. It doesn't seem to matter how low Bush sinks in the polls, the party leader-wannabes go from debate to open forum and sound just like W, with few exceptions.
The best (or worst) example seems to be John McCain. McCain gambled a year or two ago when he shed his "rebel with a cause" image. The maverick has become a clone of the president. The folks that supported him as the rebel in 2000 say he's sold out. The one's that he is trying to court remember his maverick stance in 2000 and say no way – we remember the past. For McCain, stick a fork in him – he's done.
The one candidate that sounds different is Dr. No – Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. He says no to the war, no to the Patriot Act, no to No Child Left Behind and yes to major overhaul of the government. (I knew I liked this guy.) Definitely not a clone of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And believe you me, the Libertarians are united all over the state to register Republican and show up Saturday and in January for Paul.
But Saturday could tell something. It may not produce a clear leader with Giuliani on the sidelines and Thompson playing "I'm in, I'm not in" but it could serve to be a knock out blow to the second or third tier candidates even before the real fight begins.
But even when the straw poll is done, we still have 4 ½ months until the Hawkeye Caucii. Plenty of time for a candidate to put a foot in their mouth and stumble from the top to has been.
Remember the 2004 front runner on the other side, Howard Dean?