For the next month, the 2012 Republican presidential race is all about Ames.
As in Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University and one of the quadrennial rites of passage for any Republican presidential contest: the Ames Straw Poll.
The poll, which will be held on Aug. 13, amounts to a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. But since 1979 it has also been regarded as a key early test of strength in the Hawkeye State.
Although the highest recorded turnout for the event is just north of 23,000, in 1999, Ames has real consequences.
After a sixth-place finish there in 1999, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander ended his campaign. Eight years later, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily won the straw poll, but the story was a surprising second-place finish by little-known former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who used the momentum gained from Ames to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses the following year.
“This is the most wide-open scenario since 1995,” said Tim Albrecht, an Iowa Republican operative unaligned in the 2012 presidential contest and serving as spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad.
So, who will Ames make — and break — this year? Neither Romney nor former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is competing, but there are still any number of fascinating story lines to watch. Here are the Fix’s early Ames odds:
Michele Bachmann (3 to 1): With Romney taking a pass on the poll, the Minnesota congresswoman is the front-runner. Bachmann has three big things going for her: She’s a native Iowan, she’s beloved within social conservative circles, and she is likely to be free to spend as much money as she likes to organize supporters for the straw vote. What we don’t know: Can Bachmann, who announced her candidacy in mid-June, catch up organizationally in a relatively short period of time?
Tim Pawlenty (5 to 1): No candidate needs an Ames win like the former Minnesota governor. His campaign has hit a rough patch over the past month, beginning with a weak debate performance in New Hampshire and continuing through a disappointing fundraising report. Pawlenty needs to show momentum to save his candidacy from becoming Lamar Alexander 2.0. “We view the past as prologue,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “The preseason is now ending and the straw poll is an important marker at the start of the campaign, and we are confident that we will do well.” To remain in the race, he must.
Ron Paul (5 to 1): Walking around the Ames fairgrounds four years ago, you would have thought the libertarian congressman from Texas was going to pull a mighty upset. His supporters were loud and seemingly everywhere. Yet he finished a disappointing fifth. This time, Paul is going for broke. He spent more money than any candidate — $31,0000 — on real estate, buying a prime plot right outside where the votes are cast, and his domination of various straw polls this year (albeit on a smaller scale) suggests that he should be taken seriously.
Herman Cain (20 to 1): Cain’s odds would have been better had he not just weathered an Iowa staff meltdown in which his state director and straw-poll coordinator headed for the exits. Still, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza has shown some mojo in Iowa. He took 10 percent in a recent Des Moines Register poll — behind only Romney and Bachmann.
Rick Santorum (25 to 1): The former senator from Pennsylvania opened some eyes this year when he signed on several well-regarded Iowa operatives, including Nick Ryan. Those signings could lay the groundwork for a surprise result at Ames, although Santorum will have to do better than the fourth-place showing of Gary Bauer in 1999 and the third-place finish of then-Sen. Sam Brownback in 2007 — both true-blue social conservatives like Santorum — to make waves.
Rick Perry (30 to 1): Perry hasn’t made up his mind about running, but some of his supporters hope to use Ames to show him how much Iowa support he would have if he does. Although he would be a formidable candidate — at the straw poll and in Iowa generally — it’s tough to gauge how many people would be willing to vote for someone who, at the moment, is on the sidelines.
Thad McCotter (100 to 1): McCotter, a little-known Michigan congressman, caused a bit of a stir when a representative of his campaign initially refused to identify who he was working for in the plot purchase for Ames. That’s probably the most attention his campaign will receive in the straw poll.
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