By Ray Stern
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United States Senator John McCain spent last weekend in Arizona, vacationing with his family. The news shocked me because I can't recall the last time the guy actually showed his face in his home state. The rest of the country was interested because McCain skipped the Iowa straw poll.
An intriguing political maneuver, to be sure. The almost unanimous assessment of the straw poll is that it's a sham -- a pre-primary fund-raising circus orchestrated by the Iowa Republican party in which 25,000 tickets are sold to an event in Ames, at which GOPers vote for their favorite presidential contender. The candidates buy up the $25 tickets, bus in their supporters and feed and entertain them.
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. All the GOP contenders played along this year -- they ate barbecue, took to the stump and spent their hard-earned campaign dollars on telephone banks and bus leases.
Everyone, that is, but John McCain. He denounced the straw poll as a ruse, pointing to voter fraud in past years and decrying the notion of vote-buying -- and hightailed it to Lake Powell for the weekend.
"If we learned anything from Ames, it is that there is absolutely no connection between the absurd amount of money spent by the candidates there and the election of even a single delegate," McCain pontificated in a statement released late Saturday. "This is nothing more than politics as usual -- taken to the extreme."
The move got McCain approving nods from pundits and some airtime on the Sunday political talk shows, but no one else seemed to care much.
They should, because the decision sets the course for an unusual strategy in modern American presidential politics: John McCain may well skip Iowa entirely, focusing instead on the New Hampshire, South Carolina and California primaries.
Iowa is synonymous with presidential victory -- or, at least, the pursuit thereof. For decades, pols from both parties have hoofed it door-to-door -- heck, in 1988, Bruce Babbitt even bicycled across the state -- begging for the votes cast in the state's February caucuses.
The caucuses (not to be confused with the just-completed straw poll) put a presidential wanna-be on the political map and nudge him or her toward victory in the first primary in another key state, New Hampshire. The straw poll is merely a warm-up, a dress rehearsal for the spotlight dance between candidates and voters, come next year.
In his recent statement, McCain was already making noises about sitting out the caucuses, too.
"I am concerned about the straw poll's impact on the Iowa caucuses themselves, that the extraordinary influence of big money that has polluted the straw poll could have a similar effect on the caucuses," he announced.
(A word or two about money and John McCain: Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer made respectable showings in the straw poll -- third and fourth, respectively -- and they have far less cash than McCain. When he talks about Big Money, he's trying to pretend he hasn't raised it himself -- more than $6 million and counting.)
No, it wasn't just the thought of putting on those dancing shoes and digging deep in the campaign coffers that made McCain skip Iowa last weekend.
He can call the straw poll a ruse as much as he wants, but the reality is that if he'd had a prayer at victory -- or even second or third place -- John McCain would have been up to his elbows last week in Iowa barbecue sauce. Truth be told, Iowans don't much like McCain, mainly because he opposes ethanol subsidies, and ethanol is made from corn, and Iowa is pretty much wall-to-wall corn, and Iowa is in the midst of one of the biggest farm crises since the Depression.
That position would not have won him votes last weekend, and it wouldn't do much better, I suspect, in the February caucuses.
Which raises the question: McCain bowed out of the straw poll, but can he badmouth the state and its Republican party, skip the caucuses and still hope to win the nomination?
I didn't attend the straw poll. Like John McCain, I spent last weekend in northern Arizona. But I talked to some folks who were in Iowa, and got some mixed opinions on how much McCain's absence mattered.
She muses about Iowa's "front-row seat" in the presidential campaign.
"If you look at it nationally, why should a bunch of white, middle-aged Iowans make this choice?" Metcalf asks. "I'm not so sure that's so good for the country. On the other hand, because it's a small state and easy to get around, a lot of people get to meet these candidates individually, the press follows them around. It is certainly different from campaigning in Phoenix or New York City."
And how will skipping the straw poll affect McCain?
"My sense is that McCain is a long shot anyway," says Metcalf. "It probably won't hurt him all that much to skip Iowa."
But what about the Iowa caucuses? Will he have to mend fences with long-memoried Iowans?