AMES, Iowa – Now comes the scramble. What’s it mean?
Michele Bachmann edged Ron Paul, winning the Republican Party’s straw poll Saturday afternoon, the highly touted first “vote” of the people in the GOP’s presidential contest.
Bachmann received 4,823 votes (28.5 percent of the 16,892 votes cast), while Paul had 4,671 votes (27.7 percent).
What do the results that say about the Iowa straw poll – and the national contest ahead? Are either of those candidates truly viable to end up as the GOP presidential candidate?
An even bigger question probably surrounds former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who spent more time and more money and exerted more energy in Iowa than any other candidate. He finished a distant, disappointing third with 2,293 votes (13.6 percent).
Will showing let Pawlenty continue raising money?
Is that a strong enough showing to keep even a trickle of money coming in?
In private, while the voting was going on, some of his biggest supporters were saying that nothing short of a second-place finish would be acceptable. Not even close.
“It’s a hard decision he has to make,” said U.S. Rep. Steve King, an uber-conservative Iowa congressman and a soul mate of Bachmann, although he hasn’t yet endorsed her.
“She’s my dear, dear friend,” he said.
King went on to say that if there’d been a small turnout, he believes Paul would have won the race.
“His organization is very strong,” King said.
A small turnout might also have helped Pawlenty – because the former Minnesota governor had done all the right things in putting together an organization.
Yet, in the end he was far from the top.
Pawlenty’s problem becomes even greater when you add in the fact that a couple of GOP heavy hitters opted not to play in the straw poll. Mitt Romney, who won the poll in 2007, participated in Thursday night’s debate but did not organize actively. He received 567 votes.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who supposedly upset Iowans by first announcing his candidacy on the day of “their” straw poll, ende up receiving 718 write-in votes.
Bachmann dominates day
But the story of the day was Bachmann.
“We’re gonna make Barack Obama a one-term president,” she yelled out amid a mob of reporters and supporters.
Bachmann, an Iowa native, accomplished this victory while campaigning for only 48 days in the state.
“She brought in charisma, she brought in energy,” said King.
She also brought in a lot of money in a hurry. Her campaign was said to have flooded Iowa with more than 6,000 voting tickets.
Understand the rules: This is a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. Each participant is charged $30 for a ticket to vote. The party also makes huge amounts of money selling spaces for the candidates who are participating.
But again, no candidate spent so much as Pawlenty. No candidate presented such a lavish (free) meal to those attending the straw poll as Pawlenty supporters.
The result: a distant third to two people many will see as fringe candidates.
Over and over, people attending the straw poll found two things lacking in Pawlenty.
“Blah” and “flat” were among the comments this Iowa crowd had to say about T-Paw.
Even those who praised him didn’t do so with gusto.
“He seems like a nice guy” was about as good as it got.
Straw poll scene remarkable
It was a remarkable scene here today.
Bachmann dancing in her campaign’s tent. Mary Pawlenty, standing on the stage where a rock band had been playing, imploring late-comers to vote and then, saying over the public address system, “Honey, make sure you tell those people you’re talking to to vote.”
Long lines, free food, white people everywhere. (The only diversity in this crowd was the age range; there were a few young, a sizeable number of middle-agers and a lot of old people.)
The straw poll was held in the basketball coliseum, on the edge of the Iowa State campus.
Buses, rented by the campaigns, rolled into the parking lots, carrying true believers from across the state.
At about 9:30 this morning, Pawlenty, his wife and their two daughters were headed, via golf cart, to the parking lots to welcome supporters.
The campaign also had a bag-piper – and volunteers — on hand to greet the governor’s supporters as they got off the bus.
“You ready to move out?” the greeter shouted.
“OK, let’s go,” the greeter said.
The old, the young and those in between made the march a few hundred yards to the Pawlenty tent, where they were greeted by Famous Dave’s barbecue, mini-Blizzards and rock music.
The food received thumbs up, even though lines were long.
“Better than I’d get at home,” said Larry Reynoldson, a retired small businessman from Boone, Iowa. “And there’s dessert to boot.”
Passion seemed lacking for Pawlenty
Reynoldson wasn’t a passionate Pawlenty booster, but he liked him.
“He seems like a good guy and I have in-laws who live in Minnesota,” he said. “They say he did a pretty good job when he was governor. It’s not easy for a conservative to get anything done in Minnesota. Isn’t that the state that voted for Franken.”
Most of the Pawlenty supporters were wearing the Wellstone-green T-shirts they’d been given on the bus.
Why Wellstone green?
“Not just Wellstone green, Jimmy Carter green, too,” said Nick Ayers, a member of the Pawlenty staff.
So why the liberal color?
“We figured everybody else would be red, white or blue,” he said. “We wanted to stand out.”
The T-shirts did stand out.
But so did Bachmann’s. Her volunteers wore orange, her supporters were in red and blue and the lines to her tent were massive.
“I’ll never complain standing in line for free food,” said one Bachmann supporter.
The congresswoman’s supporters seemed far more passionate than Pawlenty’s, although certainly no more passionate than Ron Paul’s disciples.
What is it about Bachmann?
“I saw her a week ago in Des Moines,” said Joan Walker. “She gave a prayer for all those Navy Seals who had been killed in Afghanistan. It was a really nice prayer and she didn’t read it. It came from her heart. That won me over.”
Walker also said she was swayed by Bachmann’s unabashed support for Israel.
“I’m angry with the bozo in the White House,” she said. “I’m angry with what he’s done with our relationship with Israel. I find it frightening.”
Her fright is based on her biblical readings.
“God said I’ll bless those who bless you [the Israelites] and curse those who curse you,” Walker said. “I don’t want our nation cursed.”
Of course, all of the Republican candidates competing in the straw poll were strong on God. Standing up for God was a sure applause line — an even bigger applause line than ripping into the president.
The people who attended this event seem to truly believe that all that is standing between the country and prosperity is President Obama.
So those were the universal themes of the day: God is good, Obama is bad.
In his speech, Pawlenty said, “The way forward starts with a trust in God.”
The line drew cheers from his supporters in the mosh pit area in front of the speaker’s podium and from those seated in the arena seats.
What’s second to “trusting in God” in Pawlenty’s view of moving forward.
You can’t spend more than we take in,” said in his speech.
Bachmann wasted no time in getting to God in her speech.
“God bless you, everyone,” she said when she took the stage to huge cheers.
For Minnesotans, the most interesting thing about Bachmann’s speech might have been the absence of any mention of Minnesota.
The video introduction to Bachmann was filled with Iowa scenes and of her childhood home in Waterloo.
When she talked of Iowa she talked of “we.”
“We Iowans are social conservatives, and we Iowans are never ashamed of our religious faith,” she said.
Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.
“This country needs a president from Iowa,” she said.
Two problems with that: Bachmann is no longer from Iowa — and the last Iowa president was a fellow named Hoover, who is not generally perceived as a success story.
“For 150 years, my family has lived in Iowa,” she said.
The Iowans in the arena loved it. They loved everything about Bachmann’s speech, even when it didn’t make much sense.
A portion of her speech was devoted to family, which in her view is among the reasons marriage must be defined in law as between one man and one woman.
“The family is the foundational unit of this country,” she said. “Thank God for family.”
She talked about the splendors of her own parents and the family she was brought up in.
Then, out of nowhere, she said that her parents divorced and her father left and her single mom was in poverty.
“But we did stick together,” she said, again thanking God for family.
Wait a minute, what does that mean?
It didn’t matter. The crowd loved everything the Iowa woman, who represents the 6th District in Minnesota, said.
She ended her speech by saying she was going to the polls.
But, of course, she couldn’t vote. She’s not really an Iowan any more.
Political sideshows, too
There also were passionate political sideshows.
Ron Paul’s followers hung on every word the Texas congressman said about how the United States is on the edge of total economic collapse because it no longer uses the gold standard.
There also was some pathetic political theater.
In the midst of the lots filled with big tents and free food, there was Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan congressman who has entered the race. McCotter’s campaign had a van and a stage on its lot. The candidate — a tall, very slender fellow who has the look of an undertaker from a Clint Eastwood movie — played guitar in a rock band that was hired for the day.
He seemed to be a competent performer, but the band attracted only a handful of people, including the spouse of the drummer.
“How ’bout that Thaddeus McCotter?” the drummer said to the empty seats after one tune. (McCotter picked up 39 votes.)
And then it was 4 o’clock, the food lines closed down, the voting was over and the show moves on.
Clearly, Bachmann’s moving on with it. But is the show over for Pawlenty?
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.