Sunday, August 12, 2007

Republicans in the Straw

Published: August 11, 2007

Des MOINES

Happy Iowa Straw Poll Day!

Today40,000 Republicans are expected to make a pilgrimage to a large tent in Ames, Iowa, where they will eat an enormous amount of free food and vote for a presidential candidate. Mitt Romney is going to serve barbecue, and one of his sons has just visited all 99 counties. I don’t think we need say more.

The Iowa Republicans are known for being socially conservative, and the candidates are dragging in every relative they can get their hands on to demonstrate their familial credentials. “Mom and Dad will be up on Saturday,” promised Senator Sam Brownback, possibly embarrassed that he had come to the Iowa State Fair armed with only one daughter. Romney moves around with so many photogenic sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren that they look like one of those singing families that were so popular in the ’70s.

(“Now here’s the Romneys with their No. 1 hit, “I Woke Up in Cedar Rapids This Morning.”)

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but all the divorced candidates have taken a pass on the straw poll. The rest have been fighting over who opposes abortion the most. (There are eight Republicans campaigning here, and if you can name them all you need to re-examine your priorities.)

As a result, we have not devoted nearly enough attention to interesting moments like the time Romney equated service in the military with son Josh’s ordeal driving the Mitt Mobile around Iowa all summer long.

On the plus side, some of the more hopeless candidates might give up if they do badly here, and stop cluttering up the debates. Supporters of Tommy Thompson have reportedly been warned that Thompson will commit political hari-kari if they fail to turn out in droves. It’s hard to imagine they’ve been empowered by the way the campaign refers to them as S.O.T.T.’s.

It’s tough getting even Iowans to focus on the 2008 presidential race in August of 2007. When Brownback took his turn at the traditional Iowa Fair Soapbox Address the other day, only a handful of people were prepared to sit on picturesque bales of hay in the hot sun and listen. “Just let me conclude by saying this is a wonderful nation,” he said before wandering off past the X-Treme French Fries booth.

The Iowa State Fair is not actually about politics so much as about finding new things to deep-fry. (Twinkies! Candy bars! Pork-chop-on-a-stick!) This is why Michael Bloomberg is never going to be president. Midwestern fairgoers could never relate to a man who believes all fast food should come with a calorie count.

While Brownback was speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of about 20, the line of people waiting to see Harry Potter carved in butter snaked around the Agriculture Building. Since the statue itself is behind glass for climate-control reasons, the scene strongly resembled the viewing of the Pietà in the Vatican.

Harry, pointing his buttery wand toward the flower-arranging competition, was surrounded by toads and potion bottles and, of course, the traditional Butter Cow which has to be there whether it really fits the theme or not. This was all the work of Sarah Doyle Pratt, a 30-year-old elementary school teacher, who apprenticed under the legendary Norma “Duffy” Lyon, creator of the never-to-be-forgotten all-butter Last Supper.

Truly, if you are into art forms based on dairy products, you have to go to Iowa. The year Hillary Clinton first ran for Senate, the state of New York suffered a deep humiliation when half the world went traipsing through the fair in Syracuse and all we had to offer was a butter sculpture of a refrigerator.

All the other states are wildly jealous of the fact that the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary come first and get so much attention. Florida has been particularly whiney, which is really like the kid with all the toys howling because he sees another child with a rather attractive piece of string. But everybody is shoving their way to the front, putting us in deep jeopardy of an Iowa Christmas Caucus.

Instead of fighting about who gets to actually vote first, perhaps the states could just supercede the straw poll by producing their own meaningless exercises in summertime fund-raising and attention-getting. Personally, I’m only in Iowa for the butter sculpture, and I’d be happy to be diverted if, say, Arkansas challenged its voters to pile up watermelons for their favorite Republican, or Kansas did a Candidate Winnowing. Winners will be judged on originality and public participation.

Extra points for carving things out of local produce.

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