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08.11.11

GOP Players’ Iowa Test

A key debate, the straw poll—Iowa is politics’ front line this week. From who they dislike (Obama, Romney) to who’s got buzz (Bachmann) and who’s on the edge (Pawlenty), locals give John Avlon some Midwest perspective.

If you like sweet corn, or presidential politics, this is a good time to be in the heartland. On Thursday night, the GOP field will meet for a pivotal debate in Des Moines, Iowa. On Saturday, the only straw poll that really matters will take place in Ames, Iowa.

I just got back from four days in Iowa, and the dose of Midwest perspective did me some good. First, no one I spoke to was obsessing with the stock-market paroxysms. The London riots were a distant concern. Instead, weather and politics were on people’s brains. Candidate overload was already leading to a healthy degree of skepticism about the current crop. Everything seemed to be heating up at the same time.

“My voicemail is full every night with Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and other folks,” a retired accountant named Denny Young told me at a restaurant in West Des Moines. “I get calls every day from people taking polls, asking what candidate I like best. Once, I said Thaddeus McCotter. There was a pause on the other end of the line. And then the other person on the line said, ‘Who’s that?”

Iowa is the state where voters are subjected to near harassment this early in the season. New Yorkers and Californians can only fantasize about such attention.

While I heard a steady stream of dissatisfaction when I asked about the declared candidates—tepid enthusiasm for Pawlenty was the closest I came to finding real commitment—Republicans are united in their dislike of President Obama.

“The overriding attitude, even among social conservatives, is not ‘death before dishonor,’ local leader Bud Hockenberg told me. “Instead it’s ‘anybody but Obama.’”

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From left: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), at the Republican presidential debate in June (Jim Cole / AP Photo)

I asked the former head of the Iowa State University Young Republicans, Logan Pals, what the students were thinking in advance of their prime-time moment. “Well, basically, Ames is just a circus right now, there’s people and press all over the place,” he said. “Pawlenty’s at a make-or-break point right now. And if he doesn’t do well here, I wouldn’t be surprised if he drops out. He’s done everything he can. He’s just not getting the support because every month a new candidate is coming in and they’re just taking the buzz away from him—especially Michele Bachmann. But he does have a good ground campaign. He’s spending a lot of money here.”

For all Pawlenty’s make-or-break effort to connect, the other candidate from Minnesota seems positively beloved next to the de facto frontrunner, Mitt Romney. “The one thing I noticed is that most students just don’t connect with Mitt Romney the way they do with the rest of the candidates,” Pals told me. “They don’t feel like he’s conservative enough. He’s flip-flopped on a couple issues [and] they’d rather support a different candidate, like Michele Bachmann or Tim Pawlenty or even Rick Santorum, you know?”

Thursday night’s debate, which I will be live-blogging for The Daily Beast with Howard Kurtz, will be consequential. It is the last chance for candidates to swing hard and make an impression. The straw poll matters most in terms of establishing a narrative in advance of the Iowa caucuses, an unquantifiable but nonetheless valuable asset as journalists spend the next five months reading the tea leaves here.

I asked the local authority, columnist Kathie Obradovich of Des Moines Register, what the most common misconception of the Iowa straw poll was among the national media.

Pawlenty’s at a make-or-break point right now. And if he doesn’t do well here, I wouldn’t be surprised if he drops out. He’s done everything he can.

“That it’s really, really important,” she said without missing a beat. “The straw poll should not have the power to drive anybody out of the field. It should not be winnowing candidates at this stage in the game. But it does. It is a test of campaign strength, but it’s an unrealistic test. Campaigns don’t have to get people to drive hundreds of miles and spend a day and possibly shell out 30 bucks for them to attend a caucus.”

She makes a good point. The caucus system of clustering in crowded gyms and wooing neighbors to your candidates’ corner seems positively scientific compared to the straw poll.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist asking Obradovich for her “win, place, or show” political horse-race prediction in advance of Ames. “It’s so hard to predict,” she said judiciously. “But if I were to put money down, I’d probably have to go Bachmann, then Pawlenty, and then [Ron] Paul. That would be my best bet.”

Politics is perception, especially at this stage of a campaign. Debates and straw polls matter most to the extent they shape the narrative. And narrative is the secret weapon of politics—powerful, unaccountable, and invisible; it provides the standard by which stories are written and facts judged.

Iowa has disproportionate influence in our presidential politics, but experience has left the state seasoned and reasoned. This year, however, marks the debut of the Tea Party. And if Bachmann remains the frontrunner and wins the caucus, it will force some awkward apologies from one of the nation’s most educated states.

Nonetheless, Iowa is where the action is right now, the front line of retail politics. It is well worth a trip, because amid the towns and farms and universities, candidates find that the lessons of life ultimately apply—you get what you give.