Ames, Iowa – Strolling through the pageant of unhealthy food and unsound ideology that is the Iowa Straw Poll, amid the good-natured Republicans who swept Michele Bachmann to an impressive victory, I couldn't help but reflect that this quadrennial exercise is one crazy way to pick a major-party candidate for president.
You'll note that I used the words “Michele Bachmann” and “president” in the same sentence. That someone with views as extreme as Bachmann's could win — and that Ron Paul, who seems to inhabit his own little reality, could finish second — would seem to rob the straw poll of all but comic value, making it analogous to the opening joke a dinner speaker might tell to warm up a stone-faced audience. But the ritual is serious business, as poor Tim Pawlenty found out. Less than 24 hours after he finished a distant third in the straw poll, “former candidate” became his new honorific.
Long before the results were tallied, it seemed clear that Pawlenty was in trouble. Like the other candidates who participated Saturday, he had a big tent on the grounds of the Iowa State University coliseum where voters could enjoy free food and entertainment. People were happy to line up for the Famous Dave's barbecue that Pawlenty was serving, but they didn't stay long — and when they walked away, they weren't wearing the green Pawlenty T-shirts that signaled support. By mid-afternoon, volunteers were glum.
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There were plenty of orange Bachmann T-shirts, though, and an even longer line at her tent, despite the fact that she was serving inferior food: giant corn dogs and trompe l'oeil “beef sundaes” that consisted of a scoop of mashed potatoes topped with chunks of beef, a ladle of gravy and a cherry tomato.
Near the Bachmann tent, I ran into a couple of guys wearing “Veterans for Rick Perry” shirts. There was no Perry tent — this was just hours after the Texas governor had announced his candidacy — but that didn't keep Dan Shelley and John Burkhardt from working the crowd, even if they had no goodies to offer.
“I've known Rick since 1987,” said Shelley, an Austin lawyer who served in the Texas Legislature with Perry. “He had a reputation as a bulldog fiscal conservative, and that has never changed.”
Despite not competing in the straw poll, Perry got more votes than Mitt Romney, who also did not participate but has spent months establishing himself as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Perhaps Romney still holds that distinction, but things just got a lot more complicated. And President Obama — who, by the way, really ought to reconsider that Martha's Vineyard vacation he's planning, and focus instead on the economy — may have caught a lucky break.
Post-Iowa, it looks as if the GOP field has three top-tier candidates. Romney has been targeted for a barrage of attacks from Obama's political team, largely because he is seen as the potential Republican opponent who could best appeal to independent voters — and thus pose the most serious threat.
Romney has tried to walk a delicate line, moving far enough to the right to satisfy the party's activist base, including the tea party wing, but leaving himself a path back to the center in the general election. It's a smart strategy — but first he has to win the nomination, and he will be hard-pressed to throw red meat to the GOP primary electorate the way Bachmann and Perry can.
Bachmann, the staunchest of social conservatives, is also establishing herself as the most extreme of fiscal hawks; her position on the debt ceiling, for example, is that it should not have been raised by one cent, no matter what financial havoc might ensue. Perry, whose career has been built on antipathy to government spending, showed his chops as a social conservative earlier this month by staging a day-long televised prayer meeting in Houston.
The emergence of Bachmann and Perry as Romney's chief rivals has shifted the GOP contest sharply to the right. This may fire up the Republican base, but it may also turn off independents who have made clear their distaste for uncompromising partisanship.
The Republican establishment, or what's left of it, is nervous about this dynamic. But the establishment isn't running the party anymore. The 16,892 Iowans who voted in the straw poll certainly didn't intend to brighten Obama's prospects of re-election, but that's just what they might have accomplished.