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Straw Poll Expectations Setting

AMES, Iowa -- It's finally here.

The Fix drove 45 minutes north from Des Moines this morning through land dominated by corn fields to arrive in this college town that, for today at least, is at the center of the political universe.

The atmosphere is like a carnival. A man in stilts teetered by me; kids bounce around a huge blow-up playground on Sen. Sam Brownback's (R-Kans.) tent space; a climbing wall stands in the middle of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's massive -- and well-positioned -- space right next to the Hilton Coliseum where the candidates will be speaking later today.

Romney's Mormon faith, which has been a central topic of discussion here in recent days, is yet again playing a prominent role. A flyer being distributed by the U.S. Christians for Truth asks, "Would Jesus Christ vote for Mitt Romney?" It urges attendees to "join us to spread the truth about Mitt Romney and save America from his Mormon cult values."

Matt Rhoades, communications director for Romney, condemned the flyer. "Attacks of religious bigotry have absolutely no place in politics today. It's unfortunate other camps stoop to such levels." (It's not clear, however, that the group has ANY affiliation to any other GOP campaign.)

At least early in the day, Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) forces are out in, well, force. Sign-wavers for Paul were spaced every ten feet on the walk to the Straw Poll site. RVs were camped everywhere with Ron Paul paraphernalia emblazoned on their sides; in one a monkey in a diaper leaned out the window. (No, we are not kidding.) As Post reporters Dan Balz and Jose Antonio Vargas note over on The Trail, it's not clear how many of the Paul-ites are actually from Iowa. If they're not, they can't vote today

Speaking of the voting, it began about a half hour ago and will continue through 6 p.m. central time. The results will be announced at 7 p.m. central time; check back here to see who won.

Expectation-setting is the name of the game for the next 9 hours (or so). In that spirit, here are our thoughts on what to expect when the results are announced.

Mitt Romney: No matter what his campaign says, this is a big day for the former Massachusetts governor. Polling in Iowa shows him with a comfortable lead over his rivals, and his campaign has spent more than seven figures campaigning to do well in the straw poll, and it shows. Expect his campaign to declare victory if they are able to match the 31 percent of the vote President Bush received at this event in 1999. A convincing win virtually ensures Romney is the story coming out of the straw poll, a development that should help him cement support in Iowa and build momentum elsewhere. A narrow win, however, could damage his prospects. The question is how big is big enough?

Sam Brownback: Reports that Brownback had 100 buses packed with supporters coming to Ames certainly raised our eyebrows. Even his rivals acknowledge that Brownback has a very good organization and, judging from the spread outside his tent, he has spent quite a bit of money on the event. This should be a good event for Brownback -- his profile as a Plains-state social conservative nicely fits the demographic most likely to brave the searing heat today in Ames. If he doesn't place second or -- maybe -- third, it's hard to see how Brownback justifies going on.

Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor has made no secret that today is a huge day for his campaign. A second-place showing at Ames could give his campaign the sort of spark it has been unable to find to date. But while Huckabee's poll numbers are certainly moving up in Iowa, it's not clear that he has the sort of organization that can turn those supporters out today in Ames. Anything below second is probably a disappointment for Huckabee -- especially if he finishes behind Brownback. The two men have been battling for several weeks for the votes of social conservatives, and this is a crucial test to see who has more appeal in that voting bloc.

Ron Paul: The Texas congressman is the X-factor in the straw poll. He has a HUGE presence here but does that translate into votes from actual Iowans? We really don't know the answer yet. Make no mistake: If Paul bursts into the top 3, his candidacy is going to start getting a lot more attention very quickly.

Tom Tancredo: Tancredo is a one issue candidate. It just so happens that that one issue -- illegal immigration -- is the issue that animates the Republican base like no other. Given the weather, turnout in today's event is likely to be limited to the truest of true believers, and that group is Tancredo's bread and butter. But does he have the organizational capacity to capitalize?

Tommy Thompson: The former Wisconsin governor has said he will reassess his candidacy if he doesn't finish first or second today. Barring some sort of stunning development, it seems likely that that reassessment will begin shortly after the results are announced tonight.

Duncan Hunter: The California congressman has spent the race calling himself the heir to the Reagan legacy. Maybe he is, but no one seems to know that here. Could a top three finish today change that? Yes. Is it likely? No.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 11, 2007; 12:51 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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