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Straw poll may weed out the field

Times Staff Writer

If today’s Republican presidential straw poll in Ames looks like a carnival, there is good reason. There’s a barbershop quartet in Tom Tancredo’s tent, a kids’ bounce house in Mitt Romney’s and a dunk-the-intern tank in Sam Brownback’s.

Yet the thousands of Iowans feasting on barbecued pork and casting ballots at the GOP festival carry real clout in the race for the White House.

By tradition, the Ames contest drives those who fare poorly to abandon their campaigns. For others, success can ease the pursuit of money and credibility.

The man with the most at stake is Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He is the only major GOP candidate competing in the straw poll. The unabashed vote-buying contest lost some punch when former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona declined to participate.

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Also skipping the event -- and further diminishing its luster -- is another big-name Republican: former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who has been inching his way into the presidential race but technically remains on the sidelines.

So for Romney, anything less than a romp over the high-profile no-shows, whose names are still on the ballot, and lower-tier rivals would mark a humbling setback.

To avoid that, he has saturated Iowa TV with ads, held 53 voter forums in the state and mailed thousands of glossy brochures urging Republicans to vote for him in Ames. He has also chartered buses to haul supporters to the straw poll from every corner of Iowa.

“It could hurt him badly if he doesn’t blow away the rest of this lesser field,” said Hugh Winebrenner, author of “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event.”

For the lesser-knowns, a poor showing in Ames could effectively doom their candidacies.

“Those who fail miserably are out of the race,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. “That’s just the coldhearted truth of it all.”

Those most at risk -- generally viewed as former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Brownback of Kansas -- are doing their best to grab the spotlight.

This morning, former Gov. Thompson will wheel into Ames, about 30 miles north of Des Moines, on his Harley-Davidson amid a posse of bikers. Huckabee will play bass guitar in his rock band, Capitol Offense. Brownback has assigned interns to splash into a water vat for entertainment; they will dangle over the tank on a bench that collapses when spectators toss a ball at a target and hit the bull’s-eye.

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The candidates have offered different assessments of how the straw poll results could affect their presidential hopes.

Most blunt was Thompson, who has visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties and said he must do well to sustain his campaign. “If I don’t come in first or second, that’s not ‘well,’ ” he told reporters here at the Iowa State Fair.

Huckabee and Brownback have avoided setting such benchmarks, but finishing deep in the pack would raise questions about whether they stay in the race.

Three other long shots -- Reps. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas -- have insisted they will persevere no matter the results.

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Tancredo is counting on his tough posture on immigration to appeal to conservatives, and he pressed his case Friday on talk radio. He voiced amazement at “illegal Spanish-speaking people” in Iowa.

“When I talk to Iowans, they are frustrated; they are mad,” said Tancredo, whose latest Iowa radio ad urged listeners to “join Tom’s army against amnesty.”

Others have focused on abortion as the key to winning the culturally conservative voters who dominate the GOP in Iowa. After a pep talk to volunteers at his Des Moines headquarters Thursday, Brownback called for the prevention of abortions when prenatal tests diagnose Down’s syndrome.

“We’re saying don’t kill the child,” he said. “Give the child to us, and we’ll get the child adopted.”

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Brownback also took new shots at Romney for supporting abortion rights before he started running for president as an antiabortion candidate.

“He’s changed positions on core issues, and I think we need people to lead on these issues, not move around,” Brownback said.

For his part, Romney was focused Friday on lowering expectations for a landslide in the straw poll.

“Obviously, winning would be terrific, but who knows,” Romney said while flipping pork chops on a grill at the state fair alongside his wife, Ann. The couple wore matching blue denim aprons with “The Other White Meat” printed on the front. Afterward, they admired pigs, cows and lambs in nearby pens.

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Romney advisors described the straw poll as a “dress rehearsal” for the vast organizational task needed to win support at the Iowa precinct caucuses that will kick off the presidential nomination process.

Support in Ames costs money, and Romney’s heavy spending on the straw poll has heightened prospects for embarrassment if his performance falls short.

He spent more than $25,000 for the biggest tent space at the event, a state party fundraiser that could draw as many as 40,000 Iowans, according to Republican leaders. It costs $35 to vote in the straw poll, and Romney is buying thousands of tickets for supporters -- far more than his opponents expect to purchase.

Amid the final preparations, Iowa officials said Friday that they were determined to avoid moving the state’s caucuses from January into December. South Carolina upset the election calendar Thursday when Republican leaders there announced they would move up the state’s GOP primary to Jan. 19.

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That is expected to have a domino effect. If New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary ends up being held early enough in January, Iowa could be compelled to hold its caucuses in December, a fate state leaders pledged Friday to avert.

“In this state, we’re going to still have Christmas,” said Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, at an afternoon news conference. “We have no interest in going in December.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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