Amid Straw Poll Nonsense, the GOP Presidential Race Roars to Life

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Jim Young / Reuters

A vendor sells buttons at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa on August 13, 2011.

Say what you will about the Iowa straw poll. (“Good-natured fraud,” says Walter Shapiro. “Not very predictive,” says Jon Stewart. “Overhyped, underwhelming,” says Michael Crowley.) But no one can deny that the event is consequential. Thanks to Iowa Republican chair Matt Strawn’s vote-buying carnival, more has happened in the past week to change the Republican presidential race than in the previous 10 weeks combined.

Tim Pawlenty is out. Rick Perry is in. Michele Bachmann raked her chips, while Mitt Romney showed his chops and went off script. Jon Huntsman looked more and more like Rudy Giuliani, while Sarah Palin proved once again that she is competing with Newt Gingrich for relevancy. Ron Paul continued to gain strength, though it remains unclear just how much he matters.

If you had been on vacation last week, you would have returned to a radically remade nomination field, one that should dispel all those preseason jitters that this would turn out to be a boring, pro forma cycle in which Republicans would go through the motions and quickly pick a winner. We’ve got action. We’ve got drama. We’ve got a hat rack of 10 gallon-size personalities, and one of them wears skirt suits and heels.

(PHOTOS: Michele Bachmann’s Life On and Off the Campaign Trail)

But to understand what happened, one must first meditate on the strange and mysterious powers of the straw poll. It’s more MacGuffin than Rosetta stone. Winning is not always the object, and losing is not always defeat. In 2008, Romney spent so much money on the thing that his dominating victory ended up predicating his doom. The fact that Mike Huckabee, operating with a Winnebago on a scorching blacktop, was able to come in second was the news of the day, setting the stage for his eventual victory in Iowa months later. Sam Brownback lost his raison d’être by getting edged out by Huckabee, and Tommy Thompson, who had started the campaign with a bad debate performance because he needed a bathroom break, rode his hog army into the sunset.

On Saturday the political universe was presented with, once again, an event that shouldn’t matter but does, and not always for the obvious reasons. For one thing, it forced all the candidates to go to Iowa, including Perry, who declared his campaign during the straw poll and spoke in Waterloo just 24 hours later. Romney, who officially passed on the vote, was forced out of his comfort zone when he was sabotaged by liberal activists at the Iowa state fair two days before the straw poll. He proved himself to be a far more able campaigner, but no more able to avoid the bane of all Romneys: the campaign gaffe.

The biggest change, of course, was the final decline and fall of Pawlenty. You could see it in his demeanor at the state fair on Friday. He was lackadaisical, predictable, bland. On the stump, he offered less of a story than a list of superlatives and policies, which is a sure sign of a candidate either without a plan or the will to enact one. The writing was on the wall. Big campaigns know the numbers walking into a straw poll. Pawlenty, who spent competitively, ended with less than half the votes of both Paul and Bachmann.

(PHOTOS: Governor Rick Perry, Texan to the Core)

Perry’s entering the race was the other big move. Without the straw poll, chances are he would have done the reasonable thing and waited until school started to announce his intentions. But the vote buying in Ames forced his hand. “I come to South Carolina because I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on,” he said in his announcement speech, while the Ames folk gobbled barbecue. “Because a great country requires a better direction.” The South Carolina part was key. Perry was calling out his safe state. Bachmann may get Iowa, and Romney has claimed New Hampshire (unless Huntsman makes a move). But Perry could carry the former confederacy, which would mean a long, hard slog into June 2012.

Bachmann stuck around in Ames after the straw poll to do a victory lap on the Sunday shows. Rarely has there been a politician less intimidated by the D.C. press corps. One almost expected Meet the Press’s David Gregory to blurt out, “But that’s crazy talk!” as she bobbed and weaved her way through his gauntlet, no doubt winning thousands of new supporters along the way. “The people of this country would love to weigh in, and they would love to say, ‘Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary, you’re wrong. Mr. President, you’re wrong,’ ” Bachmann said after Gregory prodded her to admit that her plan to not raise the debt ceiling made no sense.

As for the second-tier candidates, they remain just that. It’s hard to see how Herman Cain, Rick Santorum or Gingrich have any momentum at this point. They are now running to determine the size of their 2013 Fox News contract and next book deal. As for Palin, it’s hard to see any space left on the stage for her, even if she keeps driving her bus into camera scrums. Evangelicals and the Tea Party have their choice. Bachmann outperforms her. Perry has been a governor for 11 years, not three.

And all of this, miracle of miracles, happened in the dead of August, thanks to the straw poll, an event so effused in irrationality that it could only have been created by the American political system. Let no one ever say that nonsense is bad for democracy.