DES MOINES -- Tim Albrecht likes to tell a joke about an Iowa Republican being asked whether he's going to support a certain presidential candidate in the Ames Straw Poll. "I don't know," the Iowan replies. "I've only met him twice."
The joke by Albrecht, spokesman for the state's popular Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, refers to how accustomed Iowans are to being personally solicited for their support in this state whose first-in-the-nation caucuses have long been a crucial proving ground for presidential candidates. While most Americans go their entire lives without ever meeting a serious candidate for the nation's highest office, campaigning here is a face-to-face business where voters expect to shake hands and talk directly with those who seek their votes.
That tradition of old-fashioned politicking is what the Ames Straw Poll is all about, which explains why some Iowa Republicans seem a bit miffed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry's long-rumored entry into the 2012 presidential field. Last week I began calling him the "Phantom Menace" of Iowa because, like the sinister Sith of the "Star Wars" series, he seems omnipresent even though he is far away. Ads promoting Perry's candidacy have been running in fairly heavy rotation on Iowa TV recently, and his shadow campaign has been soliciting write-in votes for Saturday's straw poll. However, the governor himself hasn't yet stumped here, while the other GOP candidates have been frenetically crisscrossing the state imploring Iowans to "join me here in Ames," as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann says in her own TV ads.
A single headline best summarized the attitude of some locals: "Perry's South Carolina Announcement Is a Slap In the Face to Iowa Republicans," declared Craig Robinson on his website, TheIowaRepublican.com. The fact that the Texas governor would chose a Saturday event in South Carolina to announce his candidacy -- and thus evidently try to steal the thunder from the Ames event the same day -- will surely irritate many Iowans who feel that their state deserves first honors as a matter of right. "Perry now risks alienating the very people he needs to support him in order to win the nomination," as Robinson wrote.
Perry will come to Iowa the day after the straw poll, but it remains to be seen whether the Texas governor will receive a hero's welcome. Certainly many Republicans nationally see Perry as a conservative cowboy on a white steed riding to the rescue of a party whose 2012 presidential field has been dismissed by some pundits as lacking in star power. But many of those same pundits are (like Walter Shapiro of the New Republic) equally dismissive of the Ames Straw Poll, an event the chattering classes are wont to deride as a carnival sideshow, and Perry's Carolina maneuver could be interpreted as ratifying that view. Which is not to say, however, that Perry's campaign is ignoring Ames altogether.
During a Tuesday event at the state capitol here, where former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined pro-life social conservatives promoting a "Values Voter Bus Tour," a group of college students wearing "Americans for Rick Perry" T-shirts worked the crowd soliciting write-in votes at Ames for the Texas governor. They distributed a flyer that touted Perry as a "proven conservative who will win" and highlighted a list of the governor's accomplishments, including the fact that "45 percent of all jobs created in the U.S. since June 2009 were created in Texas." That's certainly a powerful political argument in a nation plagued by high unemployment and an anemic economy.
Exactly how many straw-poll votes Perry could get as a write-in is anyone's guess, but Albrecht pointed out that the magic threshold might be 203 -- the number of votes former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson got at Ames in 2007. Thompson's name was actually listed on the ballot sthat year, so if Perry were to garner more votes than that as a write-in, he could claim a minor victory. But Albrecht also pointed out that Perry actually has twice as many staffers now working in Iowa as does the national front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose name will be on the Ames ballot even though Romney isn't actively campaigning for straw poll votes. It is therefore a possibility, Albrecht suggested, that Perry could out-poll Romney at Ames -- which would then be spun as a huge upset win for a late-entry write-in candidate, even if it amounted to only sixth or seventh place in the overall vote.
Whatever the number of votes Perry receives in Ames, if he wants to compete seriously for the votes of Iowans in next February's caucuses, he is "going to have to come here and he's going to have to work for it," Albrecht said. "He's going to have to make his case to every voter one-on-one and say why he needs to be the next president. And while it's late, it's not too late. There's still a chance that the ground may be fertile for him here in Iowa, but Iowans do recognize the value of hard work, and if he doesn't work as hard as the candidates who have already been here working hard, then he's not going to get traction."