Iowa GOP Chair: Fluid Field May Give Straw Poll Greater Impact

BY Mary Jo Brooks  August 8, 2011 at 6:55 PM EDT

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; NewsHour photo by Mary Jo BrooksAMES, Iowa | “This is a great week to be an Iowa Republican,” a grinning Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn told a cluster of national and local reporters Monday afternoon. Two major political events are set to take place in the coming days in this college town 35 miles north of Des Moines. On Thursday, Fox News will host a televised debate with announced candidates for the Republican nomination for president. That forum will serve as a prelude to Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll — a non-binding vote which doubles as a party fundraiser during a day-long festival of candidate speeches, barbeques and country music.

In the run-up to the events, candidates have been campaigning all around the state in churches, storefronts, factories and city parks. On Monday morning, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told a group of 20 people at the Café Diem coffee house in Ames that out of all the Republican candidates, he was the only one who has done the one thing that needs to be done: beat a Democratic incumbent. Most of his criticism, however, was saved for President Obama. He said the president has created a negative, hostile environment for business that is preventing the economy from recovering.

Retired engineering professor Ken Brewer was among those listening in the audience. He says he hasn’t yet made up his mind who he supports, but that he’s leaning toward Santorum or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He says he likes that they both have a proven record of leadership. When asked about Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, he said he would listen to her but that he feared that she may be – like candidate Obama four years ago — good at talking about things, but hasn’t had the experience of doing much yet.

That was the very theme of Pawlenty’s remarks, less than a mile away and just an hour later. Without naming any of his opponents by name, he said that the candidates were all saying essentially the same thing. “But have they done it?” He said he got Minnesota moving in the right direction when he was governor and he would do the same as president. Afterwards, retired insurance agent Jim Lohr said he’s likely to support Pawlenty because of his strong record in Minnesota and because his “trajectory” on the issues is a little straighter than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Most other members of audience said they have yet to make up their minds. Even members of the various Iowa Tea Party organizations have yet to coalesce around one candidate, but are split between Bachmann, former pizza chain CEO Herman Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Ryan Rhodes, a leader in the Tea Party movement, said despite that indecision right now, he was confident that Tea Party members would determine the eventual winner of the Iowa Caucuses.

Chairman Strawn acknowledged that the race is more fluid this year than it has been other years. In addition to the announced candidates, many Republicans are waiting to see if Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will join the race before the February caucuses, which may move up to January to remain first in the nation.

As for criticism that the Iowa Straw Poll — and indeed the caucuses too — could be irrelevant this year since Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are not actively campaigning here, Chairman Strawn said this: “It’s proven a very vital piece to the presidential nomination in the past.” He added that precisely because there are so many undecided voters right now, the Straw Poll could play an even greater role in winnowing down the field.

“Partly because these campaigns need to identify who their key organizers are across the state. If somebody is going to get in a car, get on a bus on a summer Saturday and come to Ames to support you, that’s somebody you can count on in February. So it’s a very important test for these campaigns,” Strawn said.

Above photo: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks Monday at Viking Magazine Services offices in Ames, Iowa; NewsHour photo by Mary Jo Brooks