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.
I spoke with Janet Metcalf the day before the straw poll. Metcalf, an Iowa state legislator, is a staunch George W. Bush supporter.
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?
He'll never make it that far, she predicts.
"I think he'll be done. I think he'll be done not only here, but across the country."
Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for the online magazine Salon, isn't quite so pessimistic. McCain's absence didn't much matter one way or the other, he concludes.
"People were too busy eating pork, and excited about the candidates who were there, to really be talking much about McCain," Tapper says.
But Tapper, who has written about McCain, says he personally missed the senator.
"I want[ed] to see him out there, just because as a reporter I find him compelling. I find him compelling as a person and as a candidate," he says.
Tapper notes that the senator's name did come up after the results were in and Elizabeth Dole took third -- a coveted spot behind the well-greased George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. In the after-spin, Tapper says, Dole's campaign staff took McCain on -- obviously recognizing that he, like Dole, is a "mainstream Republican alternative to Bush."
Of the Doleites, Tapper says, "They had two talking points. One was that they only put $250,000 into the race. . . . The other thing was, they started attacking McCain. I mean, without provocation -- nobody brought him up -- they starting talking about McCain."
By not attending, Tapper observes, McCain didn't have to risk a poor finish -- like Lamar Alexander, who's already out of the race, or Dan Quayle, who I say should be.
But Tapper says the straw poll wasn't quite the sham McCain predicted.
"I don't think anyone had any idea that the thing was actually going to be as legitimate as it ended up being," he says. "Four years ago, there was a lot of fraud. I think one Republican consultant was joking about how he voted seven times. . . . This year you couldn't do that. They had this indelible, neon pink stamp on your thumb that probably wouldn't come out for a week, and you had to show ID and you had to be an Iowan. So, when you have 25,000 actual Iowans vote, it's a legitimate event."
And, Tapper adds, "No matter what, when it's said and done, even if you bused them in, gave them pork, presented Crystal Gayle or Debby Boone or whomever. . . . You still gotta get them to give up a Saturday, spend a day in the sun and line up to vote."
But it may not be too late for McCain in Iowa. After all, he did get 83 votes -- and that was without showing up.
Steve Churchill was a bus captain for Lamar Alexander.
"I guess I didn't really think about John McCain's situation 'cause my job was pretty clear. That was to get people there for Lamar. Which, as it turns out, didn't happen quite as much as I wanted it to," Churchill says.
Now he has to find a new candidate. Churchill isn't ready to commit quite yet; he's been campaigning for Alexander for six years. But McCain's on his short list.
"I like John McCain. I really respect the positions he's taken as a senator. I hope he competes. I think there's really a lot of people that would see him as, if not a first choice, then at least a strong second choice," Churchill says.
Could McCain pull it together to compete in the Iowa caucuses, after taking such pleasure in lambasting the party's straw poll?
"He has six months to organize," Churchill observes, although he, too, mentions the ethanol issue.
Of McCain, Churchill says, "He may decide, 'I can't compete in both Iowa and New Hampshire, so I'm going to skip Iowa completely and go to New Hampshire.'
"You know, in the last 20 years, that hasn't really been a successful strategy. . . . I don't know anyone who has won New Hampshire that has not competed in Iowa, hasn't been one of the top-tier leaving Iowa. So that would be a risky strategy, to avoid Iowa. I can understand someone skipping the straw poll, but I wouldn't recommend them skipping the caucuses."
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When all is said and done, Iowa does have its reputation to retain.
"I have to tell you something, talking about being in the front-row seat of all this," Janet Metcalf says. "When [George W.] Bush first came to Iowa, I was in the crowd, just sort of listening and watching. And a reporter from the Los Angeles Times came up and he asked me what I was thinking. And then he said, 'Well, what did you think of Governor Bush? Was he taller than you thought he'd be, shorter, whatever?'
"And I said, 'Listen, this is Iowa. We've seen these old guys already. I saw him eight years ago when he campaigned for his dad.' This is nothing new. I've shaken hands with everybody from Dick Gephardt to, well, Clinton was at the [Iowa] Capitol once. I can't think of anybody in contemporary politics who hasn't traipsed their way through Iowa."
With the exception, she's reminded, of Arizona Senator John McCain.