Ames, Iowa

On the day before the recent GOP straw poll, most of the Republican presidential candidates cruised the fabled Iowa State Fair grounds, competing for attention among the vendors hawking pork-chops-on-a-stick, deep-fried Twinkies, pickle dawgs and funnel cakes under a sweltering late-summer sun. Taking refuge inside the air-conditioned Varied Industries Building, and squeezed among displays of tractors, sewing machines, ATVs and portable oxygen tanks, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was doing some hawking of his own, autographing copies of his new novel about Pearl Harbor.

Since the crowds were more attracted to a free pull on a slot machine at a nearby booth, Newt was more than happy to chat about the current election environment–though “happy” would not be the most precise descriptor. More like glum. “The country is so very unhappy with this Administration,” Gingrich said, “that if the Republican candidates stay within the current pattern, it’s going to be very, very tough. They’re going to have to learn from [French President] Sarkozy and make a clean break from the past, or else they’re going to be in a world of trouble.”

When asked what he meant by clean break, Newt punted, inviting me to find the answers during a series of workshops he would be sponsoring the next day at the Ames straw poll. Gingrich’s pessimism about the immediate Republican future was readily confirmed during the poll–and not just by the sparse turnout for his seminars but by the outcome of the circuslike straw poll, which is held whenever a Republican incumbent isn’t running for re-election.

Sure, it’s easy to mock the poll: The Republican faithful are bused to the Iowa State University campus from all over the state by the candidates, or else lured by the sprawl of campaign tents serving barbecue, live music, games for the kiddies and a three-hour gabfest of candidate speeches–and, for a mere $35 (often paid for by one of the campaigns), the right to “vote” for the one you like. Even right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham, who served as this year’s host of the candidates’ forum, called the straw poll “Iowa’s version of American Idol.”

Top candidates like George W. Bush, who won eight years ago, and this year’s victor, Mitt Romney, spend enormous sums of money on the show, erecting huge tents and stages, hiring dozens of buses, carting in tons of food and–in Romney’s case–providing a fleet of golf carts and wheelchairs to ferry voters from the parking lots to the food lines to the voting lines. (Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who placed third, had his campaign staffers check to make sure people had voted before allowing them into his “free” food lines.)

But for all its tinfoil folly, the poll–often contrary to the wishes of its Iowa organizers–can reveal much more than just which candidate has the best organization and therefore the leg up on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, now only four months away. The breakneck acceleration of the primary season, with as much as half the electorate now scheduled to vote by February 5, has robbed Iowa of some of its glamour. But only some–candidates of both parties are reticent to write off the Hawkeye State. And some, like Romney on the GOP side and Edwards for the Democrats, see Iowa as a veritable make-or-break battleground.

“This was a full-body workout for our organization and tells you a lot about our breadth and depth,” boasted Romney’s Iowa press secretary, Tim Albrecht. “If so many people are willing to come across the state in the heat of the summer to vote for Mitt, they’re certainly going to do the same at the local school or church come the caucuses.”

That’s the good news, for Romney at least. The bad news is that the straw poll also offered a rather penetrating glimpse into the crisis of today’s Republican Party, the disenchantment among its base and the weakness of its presidential contenders. That picture is anything but “full-bodied.”

Romney, who took first with 32 percent of the votes, garnered almost the same percentage as Bush in 1999, but with two important differences: Bush vanquished some well-funded heavy contenders, including Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander. By contrast, Romney faced no challenge from the other top-tier candidates–Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and the still undeclared Fred Thompson, all of whom decided not to compete in the poll. Bagging Duncan Hunter isn’t quite the same as Bush’s toppling of Liddy Dole in 1999.

The other important difference is that turnout for this year’s event plummeted to 14,000 voters, down from 24,000 in 1999, marking an undeniable lethargy among the GOP base. Further, Romney’s haul is less than the number of Iowa Republican voters that some independent polls show as undecided or dissatisfied with all the candidates. “Yes, you can say Romney won the straw poll,” says California-based GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “You can just as easily say that 68 percent of Republicans voted against him.”

In a moment of off-the-record candor, a top adviser to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley confessed to the malaise affecting his fellow Republicans and undermining Romney’s win: “Never before have so many people come to this poll and–regardless of how they actually voted–had so much indecision in their hearts.” The 800-pound chunk of stinking cheese in the room, he said, was the Iraq War. “Our people are confused, very confused. They want to support the Commander in Chief, they want to support the war, but they can’t see any results and are appalled by the way the war has been conducted,” he said, surveying the crowd that had come to hear the candidates’ speeches. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–probably a third and more likely half these folks are undecided, and nothing here today is going to change that.” Senator Grassley also agreed that the war was fogging up Republican chances. “No doubt the cloud of Iraq is a serious problem,” he told The Nation. “Will it still be a year from now? Hopefully not. Hopefully, General Petraeus’s cavalry will ride into victory.”

Such blind hope was common among the candidates. The eight who participated sounded near-identical notes in supporting the war, except for the fringe maverick and pro-peace Representative Ron Paul (more about him below). Brownback promoted one wrinkle: a soft-partition plan quite similar to that of Democratic contender Joseph Biden.

Romney was the most “continuist” of the candidates, suggesting not a crack of daylight between him and Bush on Iraq or the “war on terror.” “We have to thank the President for keeping us safe for the last six years,” Romney said as his supporters hoisted posters with the slogan A Surge in Support for Our Troops. At the straw poll and in numerous campaign events preceding it, Romney hammered away at the theme of strength. “A stronger military, a stronger economy, stronger families and a stronger America,” went his refrain.

Romney’s other main pitch–one repeated almost robotically at every venue available to him–was change. “What brought us here is that change begins in Iowa and change begins today!” he thundered. The word must have popped up a dozen times in his ten-minute address. But it was hard to discern how he would change Bush’s policies. Even some of Romney’s most prominent supporters shrugged when asked what he means. “I can’t really tell you what the Governor means by that,” said Iowa House minority leader and Romney endorser Christopher Rants, laughing. “I’m starting to hear some subtle shifts from him on the war, but it’s subtle. I’m out fundraising now all the time, and everywhere I go–and I’m talking about from our own people–every conversation begins with me having to sit through ten minutes of complaints about the White House and our national party.”

With Giuliani, McCain and Thompson not competing and the Romney campaign pouring so much money into the poll effort, the only real suspense was over who would take second and, in so doing, consolidate Iowa’s large religious conservative base–and perhaps the nation’s. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (18 percent) edged out Brownback (15 percent), an impressive showing when you consider that while Brownback spent lavishly, Huckabee didn’t rent as much as a single bus. He won the hard way–by intense ground-level campaigning and strong personal appeals.

You couldn’t find two candidates with more divergent styles. Brownback stands on that old-time religion, pounding away at family values. Unless you’re already a card-carrying Bible-thumper, he has no appeal. Huckabee, by sharp contrast, has the soft and rather comforting tone of the Southern Baptist preacher he once was. He sounds like what a compassionate conservative really ought to sound like: He’s neither threatening nor polarizing, and he doesn’t demonize nonbelievers–or even Democrats. He’s all about a social gospel that at least sounds good. His style is straightforward, calm, usually reasonable and, yes, charismatic. (But note that he was one of the guys who raised their hands when asked in a recent GOP debate who doesn’t believe in evolution.)

Huckabee doesn’t shy away from talking about improving the environment, expanding healthcare or fighting corporate corruption. “I’m not afraid of talking about obscene drug company profits, nor about the outrage of CEOs earning 500 times what a worker does,” Huckabee told me at the state fair. “It’s important we do so, because too often we Republicans sound like a wholly owned affiliate of Wall Street. America was not made great by greed.” He also strongly supports music and arts education.

Huckabee, with his inclusive, unbridled optimism, was a dramatic counterpoint to the other candidates. It’s remarkable how far to the right one finds the center of gravity nowadays at GOP events like the straw poll. Every candidate endorsed an extension of the wall across the Southern US border, a regressive flat tax, repeal of Roe v. Wade, support for the NRA and at least partial privatization of Social Security. Romney and his family appeared onstage as if they had just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren magazine spread, looking as preppy and wholesome as the national croquet team. But that didn’t keep Romney from celebrating what is politely called the “rough interrogation” techniques used at Guantánamo and secret CIA prisons.

The lesser candidates were even less restrained, having much less to lose. The frankly xenophobic Representative Tom Tancredo and cult militarist Representative Duncan Hunter entered into stiff competition for the title of Prince of Darkness. Hunter comes off as a constipated drill sergeant, claiming he will extend the current border wall from fifty-nine miles long to nearly 900 within six months of taking the office he stands no chance of winning. Tancredo, who brought along his “Tom’s Army Against Amnesty,” railed against illegal immigrants, warning, finally, “This is our culture!” He also chided the Bush Administration for being too soft in the war on terror, denouncing what he called the “multicultural rules of engagement” set by the Pentagon. “In a Tancredo administration,” he exclaimed to an ear-splitting ovation, “there will be only one rule of engagement: We win–you lose!”

Former Wisconsin Governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson seemed to have no raison d’être for a lame campaign he folded within hours of his humiliating sixth-place finish. The most spirited contingent was undoubtedly that of Texas Representative Ron Paul, some of whose supporters donned three-cornered hats and marched in a fife and drum corps. Paul finished with 9 percent of the vote, considerably less than what some of his more optimistic supporters had predicted would be an Internet-fueled “revolution.” A semi-libertarian who opposes the war in Iraq, Paul has received across-the-aisle admiration from some antiwar progressives. But they should listen more closely to his message: He wants to abolish the IRS and all federal taxation, the Education Department and all government safety nets (“an end to the warfare and welfare” state, as he puts it). He wants to repeal the “horrific” Roe v. Wade, and he made the rather mind-numbing claim that 9/11 might have been prevented if the government hadn’t had the monopoly on deciding who could bring guns onto airplanes.

Throw in the straw poll’s warm-up speaker, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, who showed a video of “local tyrants” who allegedly want to confiscate all your guns (all of them happened to be black elected officials), and the bigger picture comes into rather sharp relief. Those who track presidential politics should not be surprised that such pre-primary events bring out the most fervent in both parties. But the looming question is how any of the Republican candidates will be able to make a successful transition to general election mode and cast a wider net.

Compounding the problem is the difficulty of assessing the importance of early-voting states like Iowa, and extrapolating the greater significance of Romney’s win in the straw poll. Is it even worth playing to a true-believer audience of the sort the Iowa GOP can assemble? In the past, Iowa and New Hampshire have served as strategic catapults for national campaigns; some Republicans, like Iowa House minority leader Chris Rants, think that’s still true. “Giuliani and McCain made a big mistake by not coming to the straw poll,” said Rants. “Their skipping it certainly doesn’t build the sort of goodwill they will need coming into and leaving from Iowa next year.” Indeed, within days of the poll, Iowa was invaded not only by McCain, Giuliani and Fred Thompson but also by the entire field of Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton and Giuliani nearly collided at the state fair. And Thompson, showing up two days later, forgot to change out of his Gucci loafers.

But some GOP strategists, like Allan Hoffenblum, insist that the candidates who skipped this year’s straw poll will pay little price. In a national Gallup poll published a few days later, Romney was still in third place with 14 percent, trailing Fred Thompson at 19 percent and Giuliani at 32 percent. Pandering to the ultra-conservative base of small-state voters, says Hoffenblum, has been rendered obsolete now that more moderate big states like California and New York are voting early. “With the exception of Giuliani,” Hoffenblum said, “all the Republican candidates running under the old logic have moved so far to the right, trying to appeal to the so-called base voters–especially on the immigration issue and just when the Latino vote will be imperative–that there is no easy way they can get any crossover votes come November [2008]. I can easily envision a Democratic landslide equal to 1964.”

Some anecdotal evidence of Hoffenblum’s fears materialized during the week of the straw poll. Des Moines broadcast outlet WHO-TV set up its own unscientific survey. As Iowa State Fair goers filed past the station booth, they had the option–not for $35 but for free–to vote for the candidate of their choice by dropping a kernel of Iowa corn into a jar bearing the picture of their favorite contender. The final results: Democrats, with Clinton at 33 percent and Edwards at 28 percent, gathered a total of 21,438 votes. Republicans, with Romney at 36 percent and Huckabee at 17 percent, collected a total of just over 14,000 votes. A veritable cornfed landslide.