A Saturday fundraising banquet that attracted about 1,000 Republican Party faithful served as a sort of appetizer for what will happen when thousands more in the GOP swarm inside and outside of a campus sports arena for the Iowa Straw Poll in August.
“It’s a Straw Poll warm-up,” Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, said of Saturday’s festivities in Des Moines.
Nine Republican presidential hopefuls spoke to Saturday’s crowd, each of whom paid $75 for a pork loin dinner and the chance to sit and listen to the candidates speak. Nine months from now, the 2008 presidential nominating season opens with the Iowa Caucuses. Saturday’s event marked the first time all the competitors were featured at the same event in Iowa.
The evening’s speech-a-thon was staged in the Polk County Convention Complex — a sprawling, two-floor venue that takes up half the city block. It features an industrial-type banquet hall on the top floor where the speech-making happened, with partitioned meeting rooms in the floor below. All but one of the campaigns rented space in that lower floor, hoping to woo Republicans in for a beverage, a dessert, or — in the case of GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee — a little dancing.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is also a Baptist minister, slung a guitar strap over his shoulder and climbed on a small stage with his band to play some familiar rock and roll tunes. “We don’t take breaks. It’s not to be impressive,” Huckabee said of his band. “We don’t take breaks because at our age if we ever stop we can’t start back up.”
In a little less than four months, Huckabee and most of the others will be hosting similar but likely more lavish receptions in Ames for Republicans attending that Iowa Straw Poll. The last poll on August 14, 1999, attracted 25,000 Republicans and featured an afternoon of Texas-style barbeque and musical performances at George W. Bush’s allotted swath of grass and concrete just outside the doors of Hilton Colesium, where the straw poll voting was held that evening. Beside Bush’s outdoor venue was the air-conditioned tent-turned-banquet-hall and kids carnival magazine publisher Steve Forbes’ staffers set up to woo supporters, while county music star Crystal Gayle performed on a stage nearby at the reception Lamar Alexander’s staff arranged.
While Huckabee offered the only live music Saturday night in Des Moines, the other campaigns offered sweets ranging from cakes to chocolate-covered strawberries and a chance to speak with the candidate face-to-face to try to lure Republicans into individual meeting rooms. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the leader so far in raising campaign cash, merely flew in to give his short speech late Saturday afternoon and flew back out — spending just about two hours on the ground in Iowa. But the Romney camp still rented a reception room, serving coffee and Boston Crème pies to supporters immediately following the banquet.
John McCain, the Arizona senator who ran for president in 2000 skipped campaigning in Iowa back then, dismissing the 1999 Straw Poll as a money-fueled “sham” in which candidates bought support by giving Straw Poll voters the $25 entrance ticket. The price for a 2007 Iowa Straw Poll ticket has been hiked to $35 and McCain has said he will compete for support in the event. For Saturday’s “Straw Poll warm-up” McCain offered both hot and cold options to potential voters — coffee and ice cream, plus a chance to ask the candidate a question.
In the past two weeks Giuliani’s Iowa campaign consultant has ridiculed the Iowa Straw Poll’s “circus-like” atmosphere and Giuliani himself has not committed to participating in the event this August. Giulini met over the noon hour on Saturday with about 50 Republicans in a Des Moines restaurant and told the crowd President Bush faces the same public pressures which afflicted President Abraham Lincoln as he prosecuted what at the time was an unpopular war.
“I admire President Bush because President Bush has the single-most important quality a leader has to have — the ability to look into the future and see what’s right for America, not the necessity to be popular,” Giuliani said..
Other candidates who spoke at Saturday’s “Lincoln Dinner” festivities in Des Moines were Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas; businessman John Cox of Chicago; former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore; Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.
California Congressman Duncan Hunter’s commercial flight to Des Moines was cancelled and his alternate chartered-jet-flight was skuttled by mechanical problems.