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The joys of Iowa: Part 1

Someone who knows what I do for a living complained to me again recently that this election is just starting too darned early.

I reminded her, again, that the man who currently occupies the White House announced he was running nearly two full years before he took the oath of office. This is not an excuse, just an explanation for why we have all gone politics mad.

And it’s only partly about Donald Trump.

So, as I head once again to the Iowa State Fair in search of candidates, funnel cakes and grilled pork chops on a stick, it’s helpful to remind folks who are spending quality time on the beach why it’s worth it to start watching now.

Happily, there is no Iowa Straw Poll this time around. What was once a quaint finger-in-the-wind GOP political gathering had over the years exploded into a costly political circus that bore almost no resemblance to eventual outcomes. President Michele Bachmann, anyone?

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann enjoys mustard on her corn dog at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 12, 2011. Photo by Daniel Acker/Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann enjoying the delights of corn dog cuisine at the Iowa State Fair in 2011. Photo by Daniel Acker/Reuters

But it was colorful and convenient when all the candidates gathered in one place.

The State Fair is convenient, colorful, plus has actual voters — in theory at least. In reality, most of the people I chat up along the midway are there to talk about anything other than politics. But in Iowa, organizers have realized that if the candidates come, so will we.

So, for those of you who think it is not too early to be studying polls with tiny samples and huge margins of error, here is why I, at least, care about the Iowa State Fair.

1. The caucuses will be here before you know it. Like, in February. We’ve got 22 candidates to watch rise and fall before then. No matter how much you read about only one or two of them, it’s important to remember that events change things.

It was at the Iowa State Fair four years ago that Mitt Romney, in a brief spat with a protester, declared: “Corporations are people.” This apparent display of noblesse oblige haunted him for the rest of the campaign. (Full disclosure: I was standing right there and did not see why it was such a big deal. Mark Shields and Bloomberg’s Al Hunt were standing next to me and got it immediately).

2. Free media. Yes, it is true that the Donald Trump press mob could well overwhelm everything, and even lure fairgoers outside, away from their consideration of the carved butter cow (which, actually, is worth seeing). But many other candidates will grab at the chance for a moment to stand among the hay- bales and make a little news. And because it is blisteringly hot in Iowa this time of year, we will get to see them sweat.

Gwen and NewsHour producer Mary Jo Brooks try pork chop on a stick at the 2011 Iowa State Fair. Photo by PBS NewsHour

Gwen and NewsHour producer Mary Jo Brooks try pork chop on a stick at the 2011 Iowa State Fair. Photo by PBS NewsHour

3. Food on a stick. The aforementioned pork on a stick is a highlight. I enjoyed at least one with my intrepid producer Mary Jo Brooks.

Gwen and then-PBS NewsHour Political Director David Chalian enjoying food on stick at the fair. Photo by PBS NewsHour

Gwen and then-PBS NewsHour Political Director David Chalian enjoying food on stick at the fair. Photo by PBS NewsHour

I have done enough personal research to wave you away from the deep fried Twinkies, Snickers and, yes of course, butter. If you are going to squander the calories, stick with the time-tested funnel cake.

A word to candidates: it takes a pro to eat a corn dog on camera. Witness my technique here with producer David Chalian. The key: don’t actually eat it on camera. It doesn’t ever end well.

4. It’s a snapshot. Yes, this has become something of a cliché (as are butter cows). But there will not be all that many opportunities to see most of these candidates in one location with actual people. How they work a crowd, answer an unscripted question or — yes — consume a corn dog will give us something to work with until the next debate. There are at least 14 of them ahead in the primary season. None of them, as far as I can tell, will feature butter cows.

Next week, I will share what, if anything, I learned at the Iowa State Fair.

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