Iowa straw poll serves up red-meat Republican politics

Michele Bachmann speaks at the Iowa straw poll (13 Aug 2011) Michele Bachmann traded strongly on her Iowa background to secure her victory

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If you like the taste of red meat, then the Iowa straw poll is where you want to be.

Over one warm Saturday, those jostling for the Republican nomination tossed great lumps of the stuff - literally and rhetorically - at their supporters.

Outside the Iowa State University stadium, queues snaked over the concrete as party activists waited patiently to pick up the food provided free by the candidates. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann served up corn dogs; Texan Congressman Ron Paul's team gave out hotdogs; former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's campaign handed out barbecued ribs to his supporters.

In between the grand marquees of the candidates, smaller tents held lobbies for favourite conservative causes - pro-life, anti-tax, gun rights - as Iowans wandered through, taking in Christian rock, country music and lots and lots of political chat and Obama-baiting.

But it was inside the grey university stadium that the biggest chunks of red meat were served up. Speeches to the Republican faithful are not for the politically fainthearted.

Libertarian Ron Paul got some of the biggest cheers of the day with his isolationist challenge to an overstretched America.

"We need to defend our borders and forget about the borders in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he called out to his supporters. "It is time to bring the troops back home."

Infectious rhetoric

Tim Pawlenty, who has struggled to make any impression on the campaign trail, took a sharp dig at those of his opponents without executive experience.

Ron Paul hotdog stand at Iowa straw poll (13 Aug 2011) The candidates' Straw Poll food stands ensure their supporters do not go hungry

"Many Republicans will say the same things," he said. "But as you know, just saying the words is not enough."

Unfortunately for Mr Pawlenty, his desperately uninspiring speech left less of an impact than the Christian rock band he had hired to entertain his supporters.

It was self-confessed social conservative Michele Bachmann who had most to lose here in Iowa - as she must have mentioned over a dozen times in her speech, she is from Iowa. Her politics appeals to the Republican base here. A failure here could cripple her campaign.

"Together," she said, "we are going to make Barack Obama a One. Term. President." The crowd chanted along.

Life, she said - born or unborn - is precious. Marriage is between one man and one woman.

"The family is the foundational unit of this country. Without the family, how do we survive? I thank God for family."

Mrs Bachmann is a hugely impressive campaigner and speaker; there is fire in her belly and it infects her supporters. Many at the poll spoke of their liking for her in a visceral way - they struggled sometimes to explain just what it was they liked about her.

Even so, there was just a hint of desperation in her appeal. Because, out of town and out of state, Texas Governor Rick Perry was upsetting the apple cart in a big way, announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to a group of conservative bloggers in Charleston, South Carolina.

Economic jugular

Like Mrs Bachmann, he is a social conservative, but unlike her, he has a track record to point to: governorship of one of the biggest states of the Union, a state that has, as he will point out tirelessly over the next few months, turned into a job magnet in the US.

Rick Perry in Charleston, South Carolina (13 Aug 2011) Rick Perry's entry into the race may hinder Michele Bachmann's chances

He went for the economic jugular.

"One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job. That is not a recovery, that is an economic disaster."

With frontrunner former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney absent from the Iowa poll, the contest here turned into a battle to avoid also-ran status, and for the right to take on Rick Perry.

The poll itself has no standing in the Republican nomination process - with candidates bussing in many supporters, paying their entry fee, feeding them and entertaining them, there is a 19th Century feel to the whole proceedings - but the poll can catapult a candidate into frontrunner status or send a hopeful into the where-are-they-now file.

By the time the result came through, the grills and barbecues had been turned off and tents were beginning to be dismantled.

Michele Bachmann won - but skirted horribly close to second place, just 152 votes ahead of Ron Paul, a man who wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and legalise drugs. It cannot have been the victory that she was hoping for.

With a wider margin of victory and without Rick Perry's intervention, she would have been left as the undisputed leader of the right wing of the Republican party, and favourite to battle Mitt Romney.

Now a three-way race seems to have emerged, with Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry fighting for the votes of the more conservative wing of the party, and Mitt Romney working to fire up a base that so far has seemed unimpressed with his campaigning style.

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