DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Strange things keep happening in the final days leading up to the Jan. 3 Iowa precinct caucuses. Protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement are being arrested at the offices of Republican presidential candidates. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann says her former campaign manager was bribed to endorse Texas Rep. Ron Paul. And, perhaps strangest of all, Texas Gov. Rick Perry just released an ad attacking former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The ad slamming Santorum for using so-called "earmarks" for spending projects during his tenure in Congress is, in some sense, par for the course. Attack ads have flooded the TV and radio airwaves here in the Hawkeye State in the past month, and no GOP candidate has spent more on advertising in Iowa than Perry. What was strange and ironic about this latest ad is that, until this week, none of Santorum's Republican rivals had thought his campaign important enough to bother attacking. Less than three months ago, Perry was leading the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls with 24.7 percent, whereas Santorum was sixth with 4.3 percent. Now, Perry has slipped to fifth place in the RCP Iowa average, behind Santorum, whom two recent polls now show in third place. And so Perry's campaign is spending money to target a candidate once dismissed as irrelevant.
"Rick Santorum voted for the Bridge to Nowhere and a highway bill full of pork," says the Perry radio ad, which also says that Santorum "personally demanded more than one billion dollars of earmarks in his 16 years in Congress."
The target of that ad smiled when asked about it after an event at a senior citizens center here Thursday night. "It's been sort of difficult to go through this race and not get punched," Santorum told reporters. "Every race I've ever run, I've been beaten, bloodied, bruised. So I've been waiting.… I've said the whole time, I don't have a perfect record, but I've got a pretty darned good one." And then he counter-punched, saying that "Rick Perry hired people to earmark funds for Texas."
That was apparently a reference to a report by Jason Embry of the Austin Statesman-American Thursday: "In a July 2006 strategic plan, the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations bragged that it and the Texas Department of Transportation 'worked closely together to secure over $669 million in highway earmarks for the state, $78 million in bus and bus facility earmarks, and $505 million in New Starts transit earmarks in the five-year surface transportation bill.'"
A sudden verbal punching match between a former front-runner and a surging underdog was just one unexpected highlight of the final -- and increasingly weird -- week before next Tuesday's vote. Activists with the left-wing "Occupy" movement held their own "People's Caucus" Tuesday in Des Moines, and have since rolled out an annoying publicity-stunt parody of civil disobedience protests. Occupiers have gotten themselves arrested during demonstrations at the Iowa campaign headquarters of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, as well as at the offices of the state Democratic Party. Liberals were amused so long as the protesters were targeting Republicans, but the tone changed when the Occupiers showed up and barricaded doors at Democratic Party HQ, where the state party's executive director accused the demonstrators of "threatening behavior."
Some Republicans have expressed concerned that the protesters may disrupt the caucuses next Tuesday, but it's unlikely the Occupiers will have much impact on the process. There are nearly 800 precinct locations across Iowa, most of them in small towns or rural areas without any real left-wing activist constituency, and the core group of Occupiers in Des Moines appears to number barely more than 100. Furthermore, by announcing their intentions in advance, the Occupiers alerted Republicans to take measures to protect the caucus locations. "All of our sheriff's departments and police departments are aware of our caucus sites, and we are prepared," said Judy Davidson, chairwoman of the Scott County GOP.
Being prepared for trouble seems necessary in Iowa this week. Just ask Michele Bachmann, who saw her former campaign manager, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, defect to the Ron Paul camp Wednesday. That public betrayal came just hours after Sorenson had attended a Bachmann rally, and was followed immediately by a strange sequel: When Bachmann accused Sorenson of selling out -- endorsing Paul in return for unspecified payments -- the political director of Bachmann's campaign publicly defended Sorenson and was immediately fired for doing so.
Even the weather has been strange in Iowa this week: The high temperature Thursday in Davenport was 56 degrees, although the forecast suggests the possibility of snow Friday night.
Sudden changes and unpredictable events have become so routine during this bizarre political season in the Hawkeye State that even expert analysts like Nate Silver of the New York Times are allowing vast leeway in their predictions. If Iowans experience plagues of locusts and rivers turned to blood between now and Tuesday, they'll probably shrug it off as just another campaign publicity stunt.
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