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In Ames, who gets the short straw?

August 11, 2007 |  1:30 am

As the most recent Republican presidential debate was wrapping up last Sunday, we couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy.  Not because we wanted to spend our weekend hearing more; no, it wasn't that. Rather, as we took one last glimpse at the gaggle of candidates, we wondered: Who won't be there at the next GOP forum?

If tradition holds, today's straw poll of Iowa Republicans in Ames will serve one main purpose: It will delitter the field.  Not by a lot, to be sure.  We know Mitt Romney will still be around, crowing about the straw poll that he won through dint of hard work and, more to the point, a willingness to spend an obscene amount of money.

Rudy Giuliani and John McCain aren't going anywhere, because they blew off the Ames beauty contest. And Fred Thompson, of course, has to get in the race before he can exit it.

Then there are the crusader candidates: Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. They'll still be hanging around.  Each hopes to do well at Ames, but none will lose much sleep if that doesn't happen because each also sees himself as promoting causes that can't be laid to rest at this stage of the process.

That leaves three on the bubble: Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.  Each has indicated that a poor showing today could end the road they want to take to the White House

Contemplating their possible departures, we realized that, in different ways, we'd miss them.  You think we jest?  Not at all.

By far we would mourn the passing of Huckabee from the campaign trail the most -- especially since we haven't yet had the chance to catch a live performance of Capitol Offense, the rock band he plays in  that often enlivens his rallies. (For a snippet of their rendition of "Born to Be Wild," go here.)

He quickly established himself as the resident quipster in the GOP race.  At a Republican debate in mid-May, he sparked sustained laughter by slyly decrying "a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," a well-timed and well-delivered reference to the Democrat's much-publicized $400 haircut.

He's kept the lines coming, both on stage and off. After the debate last Sunday, he initially was serious when he characterized as "appalling" Tancredo's suggestion that to deter a nuclear attack by Islamic terrorists the U.S. should threaten to bomb Islamic holy sites.  But then Huckabee couldn't resist: "What's next?" he said to reporters. "The bombing of my religious shrine in the Baptist church, Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

Food -- especially the temptations of the not-so-nourishing stuff -- is a frequent subject for the former Arkansas governor.  That's not surprising; once obese, he lost more than 100 pounds by embarking on a healthier diet and an exercise program a few years back.  And that's another reason we'd like to see him stick around: His story can help others grapple with the same problem (and he's not a scold about it).

Thompson (that would be Tommy) may be most likely to fade from the presidential scene after the straw poll.  He's set a high bar for himself, saying it may be all over for him if he doesn't finish first (no chance) or second (a stiff challenge).

The White House bid by the former Wisconsin governor seemed quixotic, to say the least, from the start.  And as we have previously noted, in the campaign's early going he did little more than increase the steep, steep odds already against him.  But more recently, he's served one particularly useful purpose: Every small chance he gets in the spotlight, he tries to focus attention on the nation's healthcare problems.

It's the one topic that plays to his strengths; as governor, he grappled with it, and during President Bush's first term, he headed the Health and Human Services Department.  As long as he stays in the mix, his party should benefit from being reminded that it ignores the healthcare issue at its own risk.

Like Thompson, Brownback did himself no favors early in the contest.  It's doubtful he'll ever completely shake the "Sen. Switchback" nickname he garnered from conservative bloggers because of his shenanigans when voting on this year's controversial immigration bill.

Still, on slow news days, Brownback's campaign often can be counted on to stir the pot. And for that we appreciate him.

He's picked a fight with Huckabee.  He's tangled with Tancredo.  And most of all, he's sought to bedevil Romney.  In one small example, it was the Brownback campaign that last month proposed "a new word be added to Webster's dictionary: 'Mitt-amorphasis' " -- a none-too-subtle reminder of Romney's changing stances on a raft of social issues.

No doubt the Romney camp would like to see Brownback wiped from the face of the political earth in Ames.  But they might consider this: Pest though he may be to them, the skills their candidate hones parrying Brownback's brickbats in these preliminaries would certainly come in handy if he advances to the big game.

-- Don Frederick