In Ames, Iowa, the ultimate political carnival

The line to get inside Michele Bachmann’s tent was nearly two hours long. By 1 p.m., her campaign had given out its 4,000th ticket. By 3 p.m., its 6,000th. On stage, the congresswoman was dancing in her heels. Confetti cannons were firing.

And as Bachmann led a golf-cart caravan to the voting stations, across the grounds of Iowa State University here, Tim Pawlenty’s half-empty tent was tinged with the aroma of barbecue and desperation.

With about an hour to go, Pawlenty’s wife, Mary, took to the stage with a final plea. “Look at your finger,” she implored supporters. “If you have not yet voted, we’re asking you to do it now.”

Not many people visibly heeded her call.

Saturday’s Iowa straw poll was the ultimate political carnival — a test of the Republican White House hopefuls’ flair for party planning and mastery of logistics.

The straw poll can make or break campaigns, but its primary purpose is as a fundraising event for the Iowa Republican Party. The campaigns pay to rent space on the campus of Iowa State University. Voters need a ticket to vote, and tickets cost $30, although most are paid for by the campaigns. A top adviser for one Republican candidate called the whole affair “the most expensive lawn in the world. It’s a giant hole you sink millions into.”

Some candidates, namely presumptive national frontrunner Mitt Romney, skipped the show. But for those who were here, they tried to use logistics to overcome what they may have lacked in passion.

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, thought he had the organization down pat. His campaign bused in hundreds of supporters. It signed up voters in orderly alphabetical lines. It passed out green T-shirts. A bagpiper led supporters toward voting stations inside the Hilton Coliseum. The campaign handed out 4,000 Blizzards (1,000 each of M&Ms, Oreo, Butterfingers and peanut butter) blended the day before at a Dairy Queen in nearby Ankeny. They were gone by 3:30.

And it served Famous Dave’s barbecue — about 1,750 pounds of it, which isn’t actually that much meat. At the Iowa State Fair, Tiny, an entrant in the boar contest, could have provided about that much all on his own.

“The day is beautiful,” Pawlenty said in a brief interview, after eating a plate of pork, beef, beans and coleslaw. (“I had a Blizzard also,” he said). “You couldn't ask for a better day weather wise: It’s pleasant without being too hot, great breeze, sun’s out, sky’s blue and it looks like we’ve got some good momentum here.”

Even amid the festival atmosphere, Pawlenty supporter Dana Comito, 48, said she was here for a reason.

“This is business — serious business,” Comito said. “The barbecue, the bands, that’s all a nice perk. But I need to define for myself and my family who we want to run.”

Comito, a health care administrator from Granger, rode a bus that her church organized. It was filled with Bachmann supporters, and indeed the Bachmann campaign bought Comito’s ticket. But that’s not who she voted for.

“I love Michele Bachmann to death, but I’m just not sure the country will go there,” Comito said. “I’m one of those ‘Christian conservative evangelicals,’ ” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “But we need somebody that’s had the right exposure, who’s a conservative with a record and has got a chance.”

She said she voted for Pawlenty. But as the day went on, the momentum was building in BachmannLand. Campaign volunteers met people as they got off the buses in the parking lot and took them to her tent, where they registered to vote and were issued a ticket and a purple wristband. Then they were led to the Hilton Coliseum to vote. As in the elections in Iraq, people dipped their fingers in ink after they voted.

Word circulated that the Bachmann campaign had run out of T-shirts. Volunteers told people they had to vote first if they wanted to get inside Bachmann’s tent for country star Randy Travis’s concert. At one point, the golf carts stopped ferrying people around.

“I voted for Michele Bachmann, but I may scratch it off if she won’t give us a ride back to the parking lot,” said Sharon Johnston, 69. “They said you’d have a free ride. If she knew this, she’d be very upset. She’s such a sweet lady.”

Back at the tent, people said they had been waiting in line for more than two hours. To tide them over until they reached the lunch table, Bachmann served hot dogs, water and ice cream. Once they got to the front of the line, they were served “beef sundaes,” fair fare that entails a scoop of mashed potatoes topped with beef chunks, gravy and fresh tomatoes.

Bachmann volunteer Darrin Lee, a 27-year-old salesman near Minneapolis, said, “I went to the Ron Paul tent to eat, because this line was so long.”

The Paul tent was bustling, too. But as for what was being served, the Texas congressman didn’t know.

“I haven’t looked,” Paul said in an interview. “I don’t do the menu.”

The answer was locally grown corn — and by around noon, his campaign had served 3,000 ears of it.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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