DES MOINES -- Charlie Cook of National Journal was talking to Gwen Ifill of PBS in the back yard, and Carl Cameron of Fox News was in the front yard, while reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer milled around among the guests at the home of a local businessman here. They were all awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor at a fundraiser for the Polk County Republican Party. When Mitt Romney finally did arrive, TV camera crews, photographers and reporters rushed down to the street where they encircled him in a moving scrum as he made his way across the lawn to the front door.
The former Massachusetts governor hasn't visited Iowa very often this year, and his rare visit Wednesday was occasioned by the same event that brought so many big-name journalists to town: Thursday's televised debate, two days before Saturday's Republican straw poll at Iowa State University in Ames. But while the national media turned out in droves to cover the Des Moines visit of the GOP's national front-runner, these reporters and pundits from out of town aren't eligible to vote in the straw poll, and few Iowa Republicans are expected to cast their votes Saturday for Romney. Four years ago, Romney made a strong effort in Ames and won the straw poll, but the big headline from that event was Mike Huckabee's unexpectedly strong second-place showing, and Huckabee subsequently beat Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Romney's name will be on the ballot Saturday, but he hasn't organized heavily in Iowa this year -- he reportedly has only three staffers in the state -- and most observers don't expect him to finish better than sixth place in the straw poll.
The questions surrounding the Ames ballot are still awaiting answers, and tonight's debate (9 p.m. ET, Fox News Channel) could have a crucial influence on those answers, because many Iowans who will vote in Saturday's event say they are still undecided. "The debate is going to be an opportunity for people to make one last assessment before they show up on Saturday," said Donald Racheter, a former university political science professor who is now head of the Public Interest Institute at Iowa Wesleyan College.
Norm Pawlewski says he has narrowed his choices down to four candidates -- Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain. And he says Thursday's debate will be a big factor in deciding which one gets his vote in Saturday's straw poll. "There are a lot of people who don't have their mind made up, like myself," says Pawlewski, a lobbyist for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "It will depend on how free the debate is, so that the candidates can really express what they're thinking and their real core values. There's a real opportunity there for someone to sway me." Like many other conservative activists here, Pawlewski has already met all four of the candidates who are on his short list -- and he has also met most of the ones who didn't make the list, including Romney.
Regarding prospects for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's push to get write-in votes in the Ames straw poll, Pawlewski said, "That's hard -- you've got people like Bachmann and Pawlenty who've got a lot of boots on the ground. They're working their phones and they're working their personal contacts, and they're going to have people coming out. It's kind of hard just to jump in this late in the game and expect people just to write your name in.… I'd be surprised if he came in anywhere in the top five"
Nine candidates will be on the ballot in Ames: Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter. However, due to the debate rules decided by Fox News -- requiring candidates to show at least one percent in national polls to qualify -- McCotter won't be on the stage Thursday. McCotter has complained about his omission from the TV debate, but some have seen Fox's debate rule as the only way to exclude Fred Karger, a gay man running a sort of stunt campaign for president.
Thursday's debate may be decided by what Racheter calls the "foot-in-your-mouth factor." He recalled Gerald Ford's 1976 debate blunder against Jimmy Carter when Ford claimed that Eastern Europe was not under "Soviet domination."
"If somebody makes a big faux pas, makes a big mistake… it makes people say, 'Oh, this guy's not smart enough to be president of the United States," said Racheter, a veteran observer of Iowa politics. "You know the mainstream media are going to magnify any mistake that anybody makes, because they hate Republicans. They don't want us to be successful. They want Obama to get re-elected. And you know, he makes mistakes all the time, and they never say 'boo' about any of his mistakes."
Obama's mistakes haven't gone altogether unnoticed, certainly not by Romney. Speaking to the crowd at Wednesday's event, Romney recited a list of the president's failures and said, "You've got a lot of people in this country who are hurting, who are suffering by virtue of the president's policies. You may ask, 'What did he do that was so bad?' My answer is, well, almost everything."
That line got a laugh from the Republicans gathered at the McKinley Avenue home of businessman Nick Van Patten, but while many of the guests wore the candidate's blue and white "Romney: Believe in America" stickers on their lapels, several others privately said they were still weighing their votes in Saturday's straw poll. And the national front-runner's name wasn't on their short lists.
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