Death Watch in Ames
AMES, IOWA -- Behind the frivolity of today's Republican straw poll -- the banners, big tents, barbecue and rolicking music -- is a stark truth: This could be the last day as viable candidates for several of these men. For those who do poorly, this informal vote of a relative handful of hard-core Republican activists is likely to herald bad press, an end to fundraising and the death of their campaigns.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has admitted as much, telling his supporters that he will drop out of the race if he does not win here. At his modest tent, diehard fans said they felt the pressure.
"We came two and a half hours to come here on a blisteringly hot, sweaty day," said Craig Damerval, 44, an Iowa correctional officer from Winfield, in southeast Iowa. He said he knows about Thompson's pledge, but added that "I hope he's in the top three, anyway."
No other candidate has made that pledge. But several have made no secret of their near-desperation to do well here, to prove that they belong in the rarefied air of the first-tier candidates, who get constant national media attention and a steady flow of donations.
The pressure is perhaps greatest for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who have waged a nasty battle in the weeks leading up to today's contest. Both want to beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But short of that, they are eager to come in second, a feat they say would lift them up.
Speaking to his supporters this morning, Huckabee openly pleaded with them to cast their ballots at one of three locations around the campus of Iowa State University before they go home.
"We need you to take a stand, put a stake in the ground and go vote for us today," he said before taking the stage as the bass player in his band, the Capitol Offense. "I hope if you've even been thinking about voting for someone else, your beeper goes off and you have to go home before you vote."
The decisions by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to skip this contest offered an opportunity for some of the struggling candidates. Do well here and grab the spotlight. But the flip side is just as true. Do poorly, despite the shortage of serious competition, and people will really start to wonder.
"We have to show that we are a viable candidate," admitted Alan Augspurger, 53, an optician from Des Moines who is a supporter of Ron Paul. "Money needs to be raised."
By tomorrow, the gimmicks may no longer be enough: The guy standing on stilts for California Rep. Duncan Hunter, because "he rises to the occasion." Or the red, white, blue and yellow hot air balloon for John Cox, who offered supporters a chance to win a trip to Rancho Vanencia villas in Southern California.
Even Brownback's decision to have the only air-conditioned tent today may not help him much if too few people cast ballots for him here.
For Romney, the risk is not of dropping out, but of embarrassment. Like the rest of his slick, polished campaign, his presence here practically exudes his wealth: a huge, professional stage for musicians, a tent outfitted with flat-screen televisions, and hundreds of volunteers.
As midday neared, Romney communications director Matt Rhoades nervously described the straw poll as "a war of attrition" and worried about how to make sure his supporters actually wait in line to cast their ballots.
"They get here, they start seeing tents, they get caught up in all that stuff," Rhoades said. "The next thing you know, they've left and they haven't voted."
-- Michael D. Shear
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