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Behind the new Iowa GOP push to save the straw poll

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The chair of the Iowa Republican Party on Thursday announced major changes to the Iowa Straw Poll, part of an aggressive play to salvage the event's role in GOP presidential politics amid persistent questions about its purpose and usefulness.

The high-profile Republican cattle-call has seen its reputation wane in recent years as campaigns and reporters alike have criticized the high costs associated with attending -- not to mention the outcome's tendency to favor candidates with big base appeal, but little mass appeal.

Now, the state party is hoping to make participation more attractive to candidates -- first, by cutting the price tag.

"The issue of cost is a serious one that deserves a serious solution. After all, all Republicans want our resources to go toward electing a new GOP president in 2016," Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann wrote in Politico Magazine Thursday. "Simply put, it is time to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history. (We’ll leave the 'pay to play' politics to the Clintons.)"

Chief among the changes is an end to the bidding war for space that candidates have participated in the past, which gave the most financially-advantaged candidates the best real estate. That auction system will now be replaced by a random lottery, which Kaufman says "removes the most significant cost barrier to participation." Not only that, but the Iowa GOP will now provide food vendors "State Fair-style," rather than relying on the candidates to pony up expensive culinary treats to appeal to voters.

"Here in Iowa, so long as a Republican candidate can afford the plane ticket to Iowa, they are welcome in Boone," Kaufmann wrote.

The announcement follows reports that several major candidates have considered skipping the event altogether, includingy former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The Post's Matea Gold and Robert Costa reported Wednesday:

The consequences of Bush’s maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t attitude are perhaps most apparent in Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation caucuses and has in recent years embraced hard-right favorites.

Unlike his brother, who won the 2000 caucuses after months of charming GOP voters, Bush has so far been less attentive to the state. He plans to attend the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner on May 16, but his allies privately acknowledge that he may neglect this August’s Iowa straw poll, a test of organization disliked by national GOP leaders for the attention it showers on lower-tier candidates. Last month, he skipped an Iowa faith group’s summit.

The straw poll's move to Boone from Ames, which was announced earlier this year, was itself seen as an attempt to stave off the event's near-death after the party considered cancelling it. Kaufmann noted Thursday that Boone is equipped with the necessary infrastructure to handle large crowds, mentioning significant improvements over Ames with regards to access to electricity, parking, and media spaces.

[The Iowa Straw Poll is leaving Ames.]

"Change isn’t easy. After all, we’re conservatives. The Iowa Straw Poll is a tradition worth keeping and I’m proud that we have worked for months to reduce barriers to participation for both Iowans and our candidates," Kaufmann wrote. "We wanted to get back to the basics, so we’ve pared down our expenses and passed the savings on to the candidates."

The Iowa Straw Poll in Boone will take place on August 8.