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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

By washingtonpost.com Editors  |  August 11, 2007; 1:35 PM ET
 
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The Triumph of Style Over Substance: Tommy Thompson Decries the Media Age

Speaking to the Post on Friday, Gov. Thompson declared that the press - and, by default, the voters - "Don't look at the resume....They're not looking at who is the most qualified to be president. They look at who's got the best looks, the best smile, the most money and is doing well in the polls." True. Presidential elections have featured a triumph of style over substance repeatedly. And, unfortunately, this is the nature of the beast.

The Brandwagon admires Thompson's pluck, both in running for president in the first place - and in highlighting the ways in which the electronic media has reduced what should be truly substantive policy debates into tidy sound bites, flourishes of salacious rhetorical contortionism, and momentary flashes of belt buckles, boots, cloisonné American flags, and incandescent smiles.

However, and this is a big "however," Governor Thompson is about as far from being a political neophyte as Vice President Cheney is from being the world's penultimate open consensus builder. With four decades of public life, including almost 35 years as an elected official - and an unprecedented four consecutive terms as the Republican governor of an ostensibly Democratic state, one would think that Thompson would know just a little about whys and wherefores of American politics. To us, this is particularly frustrating. After seriously considering, what probably would have been very competitive presidential runs in 1996 and 2000, Thompson chose announce his candidacy for the least substantive, most expensive, most drawn-out, presidential campaign in U.S. history, on the April Fool's Day 2007 Edition of ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Huh? Did someone forget to say "April Fool's?" Come on.

To be clear, we are not in the business of beating a good man when he is down, but Gov. Thompson has, generally, been considered one of the most innovative Republican politicians in generations. Regardless of our own political predilections, most political professionals would have to agree that Thompson was a fairly committed reformer, a policy initiator, and not simply a pol. And this is where we believe Thompson's campaign was wasted. On almost every level, Thompson's campaign represented a "Failure to communicate." And, in American presidential politics, how one communicates is far more important than what one communicates. Gov. Thompson's defining fault was his inability to craft a powerful political brand grounded in his personal truth.

Perhaps the best example of this lives on his website. Here, Gov. Thompson is framed as a "Reliable Conservative," with "Common Sense Solutions" with the entirety of, what we would call, his "brand story" centered on a seemingly chronological series of past political accomplishments from a primarily pre-9/11 world. "INNOVATORS" do not live in the past. Innovators speak to the future. Gov. Thompson's website speaks the language of another candidate, living in another time, and an election whose sell-date has long since passed.

Perhaps, we might have critiqued Gov. Thompson's political brand a little sooner. Maybe his campaign would have noticed. And maybe, just maybe, Gov. Thompson would have come out swinging - and not scolding. Maybe, he would have tried a little more inspiration, and a lot less reflection. But, again, Gov. Thompson should have known better. After all, Gov. Thompson has won way more than a few elections. A little style almost always helps substance garner enough attention to attract more than a few extra votes.

Peter S. Cohl
The Political Brandwagon
http://www.politicalbrandwagon.com

Posted by: pscohl | August 12, 2007 4:57 PM | Report abuse

YOOOOOHOOOOOO!!! Go team Huckabee!! Great job in Iowa.

Fred Thompson can stay out, John McCain needs to get out and Giuliani needs to figure it out. It's down to Huckabee and Romney. Period.

Hopefully with these results, T. Thompson, Hunter and Tancredo will drop out immediately while Ron Paul and Sam Brownback (especially since he is from Kansas and threw more money into Iowa than Huckabee) will be on their heels.

Giuliani and McCain quit, so anything than this being played as a loss for them is a joke.

GO HUCKABEE!!

Posted by: bpgresham | August 11, 2007 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Bye Ron, Mike and Sam. Take a hint from Tommy and help newspapers save some trees.

Posted by: FedupwithPolitics | August 11, 2007 2:38 PM | Report abuse

One of Brownback's campaign workers said they weren't giving up, no matter what today's results show. So it'll be interesting to see if both he and Huckabee stay in.

Posted by: barrypatricia | August 11, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

"This could be the last day as viable candidates for several of the Republicans" ~ WaPo.
__________________________________

Most of them are still waiting to experience their FIRST day as viable candidates.

Posted by: Mithras | August 11, 2007 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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