Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Election 2012: Bachmann Scores Big at Ames Political Carnival

Two carnivals were taking place simultaneously in the heart of Iowa this past Saturday.

The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines was celebrating the centennial of its buttermilk cow and hawking such delicacies as fried Oreo cookies, fried butter and the ever popular (and delicious) porkchop on a stick.

Just up the road on the grounds of Iowa State University in Ames a political carnival was held. Both had cover charges ($10 to enter the state fair, $35 to vote in the Ames straw poll) and both had interesting dining selections (though no porkchop on a stick was to be found, the grub was free in Ames so long as you didn’t mind waiting in long lines). Congressman Ron Paul even provided a ride of sorts (a large inflatable “Dollar Slide”).

Below is a breakdown of how the candidates fared and in keeping with the carnival atmosphere, what each served up to prospective voters.

US Representative Michele Bachmann R-MN/IA Clearly the big winner. The TEA Party favorite nosed out Paul to receive the most votes and received the big headlines for her triumph. Though victory in the straw poll is not necessarily a sign that a candidate will win the caucuses a few months later or the nomination, Bachmann had something going for her that the 2007 victor, ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, never had: enthusiasm. Short of a major meltdown, Bachmann, who you’d never know represents a district in another state by her constant references to her Iowan background, is a heavy favorite to win the nation’s first delegate contest. Bachmann served up “meat sundaes”, lemonade, ice cream and country music star Randy Travis.

US Representative Ron Paul R-TX I know I lowballed Paul’s likely finish in the primer I penned though that was not out of disrespect for the feisty congressman nor his supporters (though it’s all too easy to harbor contempt for some of them when they are disruptive at conferences). Paul came in a distant fifth four years ago when his operation consisted of a largely empty tent and a horde of rambunctious out of state devotees.

The Paulista Ames 2.0 effort was a very different operation. Gone were the tinfoil tricorner hats and tatted up college students with the expanded earlobe rings; they were replaced by young men and women wearing suits in August (one Paul handler even sported a straw boater!) managing a multifaceted operation that was so organized that even the tent that dished out hot dogs had a professionally made banner advertising it. Five years of continual spreading revolution and launching full-scale straw poll assaults paid sizable dividends in Ames. Also of note were the supporters- instead of being heavy with college students, a large portion of those present for Paul included families (including one that had home-manufactured dresses out of Paul t-shirts) and older war veterans. You couldn’t discern the difference between them and say Romney supporters.

The Paul movement has broken beyond the kooks and the quad and almost pulled off an upset in a contest where the old trick of participants voting multiple registrations was blocked.

At a minimum, Paul won’t suffer the indignity of being shut out of debates as was the case in 2008 when FoxNews judged the quickly sinking Fred Thompson candidacy more viable than the well-financed Paul outfit. Aside from the aforementioned “money slide” and hot dogs, the Paul camp offered jugglers and Barry Goldwater, Jr.

Tim Pawlenty In what turned out to be a BBQ-laden Irish wake, the former Minnesota governor put all of his chips on Ames and crapped out. With Texas governor Rick Perry barging on to the scene that very day, Pawlenty made a big gamble. I’ll perform an autopsy later but the Famous Dave’s BBQ and Dairy Queen Blizzards were a hit.

Rick Santorum The former Pennsylvania US Senator- I find myself prefixing the word “former” a lot when referring to the 2012 GOP presidential field- claimed to supporters that his turnout went beyond expectations (which leads me to wonder if he expected to finish 7th or 8th). Considering his shoestring budget fourth place is respectable, but also bear in mind that “he whose named should not be googled” used buses to bring in people and has invested heavily in Iowa. With Pawlenty out, Santorum might be waiting for a Bachmann and/or Perry collapse to give him a sliver of a chance of breaking out the poll dungeon. Santorum had a country band and third of a pound hamburgers that proved worth standing in a long line to score.

Herman Cain The form…one-time Godfather’s Pizza executive had a modest set-up, a small tent with a stage that looked like the musician section of a hardscrabble Baptist church. The tent was SRO when the Herminator spoke and despite his not infrequent gaffes commands the hearts of many Republican activists but a smaller number of straw pollers. Cain kept the brand alive with his minimal investment and remains a part of the conversation. Naturally Godfather’s Pizza was served.

Rick Perry Banished from having an official presence for refusing to cut the Iowa GOP a check, the Americans for Perry borrowed a tent from another group and used it as the screening point for the Texas governor’s candidacy announcement. His people, Babs Janssen, Greg Marmalarde and their clones were clad in UT orange and Aggie maroon and white t-shirts. Beyond passing out flyers for Perry’s declaration of entry, the Holiday Inn-based squad slipped Aggie maroon pencils around asking Iowans to write the governor’s name in. More than a few did. Mission accomplished without great expense.

Mitt Romney To go from first to seventh shows the power of money. Last time Romney spent it and won; this time he didn’t and fell like a stone. The only time I saw Romney represented was on handmade posters carried by one-man armies decrying him as a RINO. One has to wonder if Romney is thinking about skipping Iowa altogether to avoid the ignominy of finishing second to yet another evangelical favorite and plant his flag in more favorable New Hampshire instead. It was about the only thing that worked out for McCain in 2008.

Newt Gingrich Worked the Iowa State Fair one day and then worked the straw poll area and didn’t trail Romney by too many votes. Newt will likely stay in the race until New Hampshire no matter how poorly the polls, straw, cooked and otherwise, portend. The historian in him won’t let him get out until then.

Jon Huntsman Invested in the Republican Leadership Conference’s straw poll in New Orleans and finished a “surprising” second place. But Iowa runs its polls different from Louisiana and the billionaire decided to take a pass. His campaign is reportedly in a tailspin after failing to get the jolt that Bachmann and Perry received being fellow late entires. Is he waiting on the Nevada caucuses to get started?

Thaddeus McCotter Last but certainly not least was the witty congressman from Michigan. He splurged a ton on location but not so much on vittles- two rough-looking ice cream trucks distributing bomb-pops. No more than a dozen or so people were in his area at any given time. McCotter didn’t do much speechifying (or as he put it “vent his spleen”) being content to strumming his guitar with the band he brought along. In New Orleans this writer consisted of half of his support; had I been able to vote in Ames, I would have consisted of just less than 3%. I guess I’m just ahead of the curve- the congressman’s words, not mine.

Sarah Palin Decided to make a surprise trip to Des Moines to visit the state fair the day before the straw poll. Unlike the declared candidates, Palin did not make a speech on the local newspaper’s “hay”box. The former Alaska governor was dressed casually and simply walked around the food booths while cheerfully accommodating the admiring throng’s picture and autograph numerous requests. Palin was not on the straw poll ballot though there were individuals present at the straw poll promoting her undeclared candidacy on home-made poster board signs. A Palin candidacy looks unlikely as there appears no great groundswell of support nor has she shown much interest in trading personal freedom and financially lucrative endeavors with unpaid campaigning and putting her children through another cavity search.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Election 2012: The Ames Debate

Election 2012: Ames Debate

Nobody could have accused FoxNews of cuddling Republicans tonight as the panel asked pointed questions of the GOP presidential contenders, contrasting their rhetoric with their record.

Quick notes in order of “winner”.

Mitt Romney- The former Massachusetts barely had a follicle on his scalp molested. The frontrunner prior to the debate walks out of Ames a double-winner- he retains his front runner status while not blowing the cash on the Ames straw poll shakedown that did little to help him in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses.

Rick Santorum- If Santorum had been re-elected US Senator in 2006, he’d be a big part of the conversation. Instead the Pennsylvanian is putting all of his chips on Iowa out of necessity. Santorum focused on his commitment to bring back to America manufacturing jobs that have been sailing to east Asia for years, breaking out of his familiar social conservatism. He presented well when he was given the limelight, though obviously exasperated with so much attention being given to other candidates. Santorum’s performance might allow him to slip into the top three in the Ames straw poll. Santorum also had the quote of the night, contrasting leadership with showmanship.

Michele Bachmann- She got visibly steamed, mysteriously vanished from the stage and was called out on her thin record of actual accomplishments on Capitol Hill, but the Iowa-native (as the congresswoman eagerly points out) was given a gift in the form of a question about a comment (taken out of context) related to being submissive to her husband. No doubt many people found the query tasteless though Bachmann fielded it in stride. Bachmann’s expected first place finish in the straw poll was not upset but the congresswoman showed she doesn’t handle sparring well. That doesn’t bode well as a viable candidate and should concern even those who find her positions agreeable.

Newt Gingrich- Receiving a less than enthusiastic reception before he opened his mouth, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives also showed some thin skin though he built sympathy with the audience by criticizing Chris Wallace and the media in general’s obsession with inside politics. Gingrich’s reaction to a question about his campaign operation’s meltdown brought forth a comparison to Ronald Reagan’s angry rant when a debate moderator refused to accommodate a request during the 1980 New Hampshire primary. But poor posture and a seemingly permanent chip on the shoulder attitude didn’t inspire visions of a political resurrection.

Tim Pawlenty- Though the former Minnesota governor did not have the worst performance, Pawlenty needed to almost dominate. Instead he launched into a rickety critique of RomneyCare after a patronizing setup by the panelists and engaging in a back-and-forth with Bachmann. Pawlenty’s candidacy is sinking fast (and this is coming from someone who is sympathetic to it) and might not survive a fourth place Ames straw poll finish combined with Rick Perry’s entry.

Herman Cain- The populist black conservative candidate found himself fending off questions that imply he’s a religious bigot. His concession that he was not well-schooled on the particulars of Afghanistan further undermine his candidacy’s credibility.

Ron Paul- Same rhetoric, better fitting suit. Same over-eager supporters screaming like they’re at a pro-wrestling match that marginalizes Paul as a candidate. Surely his movement has to have a better pitchman.

Jon Huntsman- So former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer and ex-New Mexico governor Gary Johnson get left out the debates but this guy is invited? Huntsman had an erratic delivery and seemed unprepared and unpolished. A poor introduction to Republican primary voters.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Election 2012: Will the Ames Straw Poll Play Widow Maker?

The August straw poll in Ames, Iowa is the first unofficial contest on the presidential campaign calendar.

Though no delegates are on the line candidates have invested tens of thousands of campaign dollars on an event that is not much more than a shameless money grab by the Iowa GOP and the Hawkeye State’s political operatives.

The straw poll has had a winnowing effect on the Republican field. Four years ago former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and Kansas US Senator Sam Brownback’s candidacies came to an end after disappointing showings.

Eight years prior, ex-Red Cross chief Liddy Dole, former Vice-President Dan Quayle and ex-Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander ended their White House bids after the straw poll.

Going into the 2011 gathering of Republican activists, buzzards are circling over the campaign of ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has yet to break out of the lower tier of candidates despite his organizational strength and relatively strong conservative and governmental credentials.

The Minnesotan’s geographic advantage was trumped by the entry of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy began to surge in the polls during the same debate where Pawlenty failed to assert himself as the alternative to GOP front runner and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Can Pawlenty survive a poor third place finish in Ames and Texas governor Rick Perry’s expected entry into the race? Probably not. Anything short of coming in second is going to put Pawlenty’s presidential aspirations on life support. Pawlenty is making a substantial investment in the straw poll and he needs to realize a significant return.

Otherwise, it’s a short drive north.

Bachmann is expected to win the straw poll; coming in second would be considered a disappointment, especially with Romney officially staying out of it.

Romney publicly said he would not participate in the contest- in contrast to the considerable sum he plowed into luxury buses to haul in supporters from across the state in 2007.

Romney is right to be leery about putting too many of his eggs in the Iowa basket as the wheels began to fly off his campaign in the cornfields at the hands of the underfunded but charismatic Mike Huckabee. The Baptist preacher/ex-Arkansas governor scored a surprising second place finish in the straw poll and then won the actual caucuses a few months later.

As expected Perry is looking to play the spoiler by ignoring the Iowa GOP chieftains and creating his own newsmaking events in the early states of South Carolina and New Hampshire. The Texas governor, who has been less coy about a presidential run, is expected to expound on his candidate status this weekend.

With the straw poll not expecting to generate any big news due to Romney’s absence, Perry’s media coverage is almost certain to steal some of Bachmann’s thunder without blowing the absurd amounts of money candidates spent on “renting” premium frontage.

The Ron Paul forces will once again make a show of force at the straw poll though it would be surprising if the libertarian finished in the top three. Since participants must be Iowans, the legion of Paulistas who travel across the country rolling up easy straw poll wins at other Republican events for their hero will be frustrated in Ames.

Despite having a large force of out of state volunteers on the ground (one of the images from the previous straw poll is that of random Paulists stoically holding their candidate’s signs in the midst of a large empty parking lot), manpower doesn’t equal votes.

Paul just nudged past Tommy Thompson in the 2007 straw poll by 2 percentage points to place a distant fifth.

For the increasingly shrinking campaigns of ex-Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum, one-time Godfathers Pizza executive Herman Cain and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ames won’t matter much as they’re already living off the land. However if any of the three were to slip past Pawlenty, it would be fatal to the Minnesotan’s candidacy while providing a second gasp of air in a political room that is running out of oxygen.

Since Congressman Thaddeus McCotter and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman are just launching their campaigns, they’ll be immune from bad news out of Ames but need to figure out a way to prevent their nascent efforts from being engulfed by Perry’s entry.

Note- I will be tweeting the results (mikebayham) of the straw poll and posting them on www.mikebayham.blogspot.com from Ames about 6 PM CST on Saturday.