DES MOINES, Iowa — Highway 193 runs nearly flat and straight some 60 miles southeast from the state capital in Des Moines to the Mahaska County seat of Oskaloosa, where the monument in the town square honors the tribal chieftain for whom the county was named. Chief Mahaska “lived at peace with the white man and was slain by an Indian in 1834,” a plaque at the base of the statue explains to visitors.
There were many visitors in the Oskaloosa town square Thursday for the “Sweet Corn Serenade,” the annual festival celebrating the region’s most famous product. And this being Iowa in the summer before an election year, one of the visitors was running for president.
Herman Cain didn’t stay long enough to sample the corn — roasted in the husk and served with a pork sandwich for $3 a plate — but he did shake hands with residents and talk with several of the vendors before adjourning to the Smokey Row Coffee Shop on Market Street for a meeting with two dozen or so of his local supporters. “Happy to be here,” the retired Atlanta businessman began his presentation, “because I like to get out and meet people and talk to people.” He quickly segued into a variation of his standard stump speech, emphasizing his background as an executive — “a problem-solver, not a politician” — and his plan to boost economic growth. And given that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had just lost more than 500 points in the aftermath of an unpopular compromise debt deal in Washington, Thursday was a good day to be a non-politician with a pro-growth economic message.
Less than ten days before the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13, Iowa is swarming with Republican presidential candidates, nine of whom will appear on the straw-poll ballot. Rightly or wrongly, the vote in Ames is seen as a make-or-break test for some of the hopefuls, especially former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has practically become a full-time Iowa resident in recent weeks. The strategic logic of Pawlenty’s campaign was to position him as a respectable conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Whereas Romney is seen as nearly certain to win the New Hampshire primary, Pawlenty’s Midwestern credentials were expected to make him a heavy favorite in the Iowa caucuses. That campaign calculus has so far failed to work out.
The first shock came three months ago in Greenville, S.C., when Pawlenty turned in a lackluster performance in the first televised debate of the 2012 campaign and Cain was immediately proclaimed the big winner. The second shock came five weeks later, in a June debate in New Hampshire, when Pawlenty was again upstaged, this time by his fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann. Reports of bad blood between Pawlenty and Bachmann have circulated widely and he has even lashed out at her directly on occasion. During an appearance last month on NBC’s Meet the Press, for example, Pawlenty said of Bachmann that “her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent.” Bachmann, however, is using her congressional record to advantage now. Her latest TV ad in Iowa touts her vote against the debt-ceiling deal: “Somebody needs to say no.” Considering that the entire Iowa congressional delegation also voted against the bill, that message is likely to resonate here. And the contrast between Bachmann’s new ad and Pawlenty’s more generic campaign commercial is highlighted by the fact that the two ads often run back-to-back on local TV.
But while the Bachmann-Pawlenty battle has drawn attention for weeks, another ad that recently began airing in Iowa threatens to upstage both the Minnesotans. “What if we had a candidate for President with a real record of creating jobs?” the new TV spot asks. “A conservative with proven leadership in tough times. The leader of a state that created more jobs in the past two years than the other 49 states combined.” Funded by a PAC called “Jobs for Iowa,” that ad promotes a Republican whose name won’t be on the Ames Straw Poll ballot: Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
If Perry enters the 2012 race — as most political observers are nearly certain he will — it would drastically alter the Republican landscape, not only in Iowa but nationwide. At this point, however, the Texan’s prospects are merely a hypothetical, as are those of another GOP big name: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The same people who are almost certain that Perry will run are beginning to be quite nearly certain that Palin will not. While Palin has not yet ruled out a 2012 presidential campaign, her supporters have assembled nothing to match the “Jobs for Iowa” PAC that’s supporting Perry.
At any rate, neither Perry nor Palin will be on the straw-poll ballot at Ames on Aug. 13, nor will they be on stage for the Aug. 11 debate — also at Ames — to be televised by Fox News. One who will be on hand for both events is Herman Cain, who created a small stir yesterday by saying he hopes to finish among the top three in the straw poll. While it is notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of that vote, a third-place finish for Cain at Ames would likely put him ahead of Pawlenty. At least one longtime Iowa GOP operative has said that, given how much Pawlenty has already invested in this state, his campaign’s viability would be in jeopardy if he didn’t place at least second at Ames. If Pawlenty actually were to place fourth — behind Cain, who wasn’t even considered a “first-tier” candidate three months ago — that likely would be seen as a humiliation for the former Minnesota governor. But that’s a huge “if,” and few Iowa observers expect Cain to place better than fifth at Ames.
Hypotheticals and possibilities and predictions are a difficult proposition here in Iowa, where it is not likely that any 19th-century pundit ever expected that Chief Mahaska — who had always “lived at peace with the white man” — would be done in by one of his own. By the time the Ames Straw Poll is over, some Republicans will probably sympathize with the chief.