And the winner is ... Tim Pawlenty!
Just kidding. The voting is under way at the Iowa straw poll, the first event of the 2012 presidential cycle involving voters. But before the results are in, it can be stated with certainty that Mr. Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, was serving up the best food: award-winning Famous Dave’s barbecue, topped with Devil’s Spit - a sauce that’s "XXX loaded with chili peppers and spices," the sign says. For dessert, Mini-Blizzards from Dairy Queen.
Honorable mention goes to Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who featured “beef sundaes” - a scoop of mashed potatoes topped with beef chunks, gravy, and fresh plum tomatoes. On the side, corn dogs on a stick. For dessert, ice cream cups and giant cinnamon rolls from The Machine Shed restaurant. “You can’t eat just one. You’ll be back for more!” the side of the truck exhorts. I had my doubts.
Another honorable mention goes to Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, who came with jars of homemade preserves from his own peach trees, served up by the spoonful on melba toast. Also on the Santorum menu: burgers.
Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, served ... Godfather’s Pizza.
The entertainment wars were also fierce.
Ms. Bachmann snagged country star Randy Travis, Pawlenty had Sonicflood and the Nadas, and three of the candidates got one Mike Huckabee - former governor of Arkansas and the No. 2 finisher in the 2007 straw poll, who went on to win the Iowa caucuses.
Mr. Huckabee, an accomplished bass player, was on scene to promote his political action committee, HuckPAC, and was greeted like a rock star. He was performing with bands at Pawlenty’s, Mr. Cain’s, and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s stages.
The big wild card at the straw poll was Ron Paul of Texas, the libertarian-leaning congressman whose followers came out in droves from around the state, intent on making a statement about his unusual brand of low-tax, low-regulation, bring-the-troops-home Republicanism. By noon on Saturday, the Des Moines Register had counted more buses for Congressman Paul than any of the five other active contenders. Paul was expected to finish among the top three.
The bad news for Pawlenty was that even if he had the best food, there wasn’t much buzz inside his tent. One man said “there were only five of us” on the big Pawlenty bus that came in from Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. “I guess I’ll still vote for him,” he said.
A woman eating Pawlenty’s barbecue slumped in her chair and said she still couldn’t decide whom to support.
Around Bachmann’s space, the energy was more palpable. The line stretched long for her tent, both for food and for free $30 tickets into the straw poll. In a stroll around the Iowa State University grounds, site of the straw poll, this reporter talked to random voters who weren’t wearing stickers or T-shirts for any particular candidate, and found more for Bachmann than any other candidate.
“I like what she has to say,” says Dennis Anderson, a small businessman from Haverhill, Iowa. “I feel very frustrated by what’s going on. They’re trying to run us out of business with new regulations.”
Another voter said her choice was probably Bachmann. “She expresses herself very well,” says Saundra Shadle of Carroll, Iowa. Her husband, Duane, said he would vote for Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, “because he’s run a business before, and knows how to get us out of the mess we’re in.”
Mr. Romney isn’t competing at the straw poll, but could garner a decent number of votes anyway. He has continued to poll well among Iowa voters, second only to Bachmann, despite making few appearances in the state this year.
Then there’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his presidential campaign Saturday at a speech in Charleston, S.C. Governor Perry is expected to become a top-tier contender, but aside from the Americans for Rick Perry activists trolling the university grounds, encouraging write-ins in the straw poll, voters here said they didn’t know enough to assess his candidacy.
If Bachmann goes on to win the straw poll, it gives her momentum for the next phase of the campaign - unless Governor Perry poaches her support.
And votes at the straw poll don’t guarantee those same votes in the Iowa caucuses early next year. Teena Toliver of Churdan, Iowa, said she had voted for Bachmann Saturday but only “because she’s the one that gave me a ticket.”
Indeed, the straw poll is highly unscientific. But as a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP, and a first test of candidate organization, the Ames straw poll has become a fixture in Republican presidential politics.
Fairly or not, some candidates will get a boost, and some could face extinction. Voting closes at 4 p.m. central time, and results will be announced by 6 p.m. central.