DES MOINES, IOWA — IF you're planning a vacation to Iowa this weekend, keep your eye on the corn. It may be the only thing that's native.
Republicans by the busload are descending on Iowa for tomorrow's straw poll, a kind of practice primary for presidential contenders. Held in a handful of states, these events are typically little more than party fund-raisers with minor political significance.
Does anyone remember Sen. Alan Cranston of California winning the 1993 Democratic straw poll in Wisconsin?
But this isn't just another state. The Iowa caucuses are the first stop on the 1996 campaign tour. They are all important, especially for candidates trying to break from the pack.
In previous years, the straw poll has provided an early clue to what will happen - as well as insights into the strength of various GOP constituencies and candidates' political machines.
Pat Robertson, for instance, won the poll in 1987, signaling the rise of the Christian right, and took a strong second in caucuses the following February, ahead of Vice President Bush. Since then, the event has become a national headline.
Padding the cheering section
To ensure a strong showing this year, candidates are padding their cheering sections. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and conservative columnist Pat Buchanan are bringing in out-of-state supporters by the busload. Famous non-Iowans Charleton Heston and football coach Mike Ditka will be on hand to shoot turkeys with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who also has a fleet of buses on the road. Too far away to drive, friends of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander have chartered planes.
"It's a dress rehearsal for the caucuses," says Hugh Weinbrenner, a political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines. "Bob Dole will try to prove that he merits the No. 1 position in the race. The others will try to embarrass him."
Indeed, for all of the campaigns, the event will be an opportunity to test their organizations. "We'll evaluate the performance of the Buchanan leader in each county, and eliminate those who are not effective," says Marlene Elwell in the Des Moines office of Pat Buchanan.
The event is also important below the presidential level. With some 8,000 people expected to participate - in other words, buy tickets to the straw poll dinner - it's a cash cow for the Iowa Republican Party, which hopes to complete its takeover of the state next year by capturing the last two Democratic holdouts: the state Senate and the seat of US Sen. Tom Harkin.
"It will be the biggest fund-raising event in the history of Iowa," says Gov. Terry Branstad (R). "The fact that others are coming in from out of state and contributing to the Iowa Republican Party - I'm not going to turn them down."
Amid all the interstate GOP revelry, however, there is a lone voice of dissent. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the pack of contenders mired in single digits, has chosen to protest the poll on the grounds that his rivals are violating campaign laws.
According to the rules of the Iowa Republican Party, outside participation is fine, even welcome. No one will be checking voters for Iowa driver's licenses.
But Senator Specter is checking into who's paying the way for non-Iowans. Some of the campaigns, such as Gramm's, reluctantly admit that they are providing tickets and transportation for some outsiders. All say, however, that the bulk of such support is coming from private, noncampaign funds.
Specter, who refuses to participate in the straw poll but will nonetheless attend, argues that such outside funding constitutes campaign contributions and puts candidates in violation of Federal Election Commission rules for not reporting the expenditures. An FEC ruling was still pending at press time.
Such posturing, of course, may prove more beneficial than participating in the poll and receiving scant support. Specter's campaign chairman, Roger Stone, admits as much.
"Arlen Specter believes in competition, in a level playing field, but he believes in doing it legally," Mr. Stone says. "This straw poll is no longer a measure of grass-roots support. It is big money manipulation."
Gramm's out-of-state brigade
Gramm's campaign, which is providing busing from multiple points inside and outside Iowa, makes no apologies. "We're trying to do as well as we can," says press secretary Gary Koops. "We're trying to reach out to every group. We're expending resources in our campaign."
Governor Branstad maintains the poll will reflect adequately the opinions of Iowans, despite the participation of outsiders. Based on previous years, he expects 90 percent of those gathered around the dinner table to be natives.
The numbers will prove how right he is. In the most recent survey by the Iowa Poll in Des Moines, conducted May 14, Dole received 57 percent of the votes, Gramm 11 percent, and Pat Buchanan 6 percent. The rest of the field hardly registered, and 16 percent of voters were undecided.
Dr. Weinbrenner doesn't expect tomorrow's results to be much different.