U.S. Republican Party candidates will face off in Iowa Saturday in a non-binding straw poll, in which Iowa citizens come together at an auditorium to vote. This is not an official election and has been described as a beauty contest, but it can have a significant impact on which candidates will make a strong showing in the Iowa caucus, which is usually held in January. But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Des Moines, however, nothing is certain this year.
The Iowa State Fair opened here this week and amid the carnival rides and livestock shows, presidential candidates are on display. Some of the candidates are national celebrities who draw big crowds and others, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, speak to however many people they can gather round.
"Tomorrow is the straw poll in Iowa. After you have spent most of your time and the biggest part of your money here at the State Fair, I wish you would drive up to Ames, because we could use your vote in the straw poll. It is not about so much who is a celebrity candidate, but who can lift this country back up on its feet again," he said.
Huckabee is among the several Republican candidates who are running well behind in the polls. In a nearby booth set up at the fair by a local television station, people can vote by placing a corn kernel in jars labeled with candidates' names and pictures. The leader among Democrats is New York Senator Hillary Clinton and the leader among Republicans is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Romney has spent a lot of time and money here and is expected to do well in Saturday's straw poll. But he could also be hurt if he falls short of expectations. Major candidates like former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani and Arizona Senator John McCain are skipping the event, but if they do better than expected after not even showing up, that could also help them.
But the straw poll results may not reflect the choice of all Iowa voters because only people who take the time and effort to come to Ames can vote. But it is the first such contest of the presidential race and, based on past results, it could have an influence on voters who participate in the caucus, in which delegates are chosen for the party conventions.
Here at the fair, most Iowans seem complacent about politics. Some Republicans express outright disappointment in their own party. One such man identified himself to VOA as Jim.
"I do not like what is going on in the Republican party. I would like to see them follow through with what they are campaigning and what they are saying instead of giving in on everything. When the Democrats by many conservatives as a thinly disguised amnesty.
Conservatives like Jim are also upset by the huge deficit created under a Republican president and, until this year, a Republican-controlled Congress.
If there is one thing vexing voters here it is the attempt, as they see it, by other states to upset Iowa's cherished position as the first contest in the presidential election process. Iowa's caucus in January has traditionally been the starting point, but this week South Carolina moved its primary to January 19 and New Hampshire, which has always been the first state to hold a primary, is expected to move its event back to early January.
Iowa Governor Chet Culver told Radio Iowa that he will not sit by and let Iowa lose its first-place position.
"'As governor, I will do everything in my power to make sure that Iowa has the first caucus in the nation. I am confident that we will," he said.
Under one proposal, the caucus would be scheduled for December 17, close to Christmas. But many Iowans like Vera support the idea.
"I kind of hate to see it in December because it is such a busy time of the year, but I would like to see Iowa be first in the nation, yes," he said.
Results of the straw poll in Ames Saturday will be made public at the end of the day and will likely fuel many discussions by pundits on Sunday news programs. Then the candidates and voters will concentrate on the caucus and the real contest ahead for who will represent each party in the November, 2008 presidential election.