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Romney leads GOP into the Iowa straw poll

August 10, 2007 |  5:46 pm

Well, it's the last 24 hours of campaigning in Iowa for GOP competitors in the Ames straw poll, and Mitt Romney dropped a pork chop.

But that's about the only bad thing happening to him entering the most important confrontation to date in the Republican struggle to win the Iowa caucuses.

Because of the costs (dozens of buses plus $35 per ballot) and Romney's early organization, determination and spending, Rudy Giuliani (in Colorado today) and John McCain (New Hampshire) opted not to compete at Ames tomorrow. Its importance is as a midsummer burst of media coverage, a state party fundraiser and a sign of having the statewide organizational capability to turn out thousands of supporters on a cold January night. Romney alone will be bringing more than 100 charter busloads of supporters.

While winning at Ames, as George W. Bush did in 1999 despite a late start, does not guarantee victory in the caucuses, no Republican who has skipped Ames has ever won the caucuses.

Romney is expected to win easily, but today aides sought to tamp down expectations lest their win not look large enough. "For people to think we're going to get 30, 40 or 50% is just ridiculous," Carl Forti, a senior Romney political aide, told The Times' Michael Finnegan.

Romney spent much of the day in nearby Des Moines at the state fair, where Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul also campaigned. Walking among thousands of Iowans ...

... consuming corn dogs, funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos in the sweltering heat, Romney visited the Iowa pork producers shed, where he and wife Ann donned matching blue denim aprons ("The Other White Meat") and flipped pork chops for eager customers.

Romney accidentally flipped one onto the floor, then returned it to the grill to the groans of onlookers. "I've tried winning," said Romney. "I've tried losing. I like winning better. It's going to be a real challenge." Drenched in sweat, the candidate then worked nearby picnic tables, pouring iced tea and water and greeting voters.

Later, he showed his toddler grandson Parker some lambs, pigs and sheep.

Around the media mob following Romney lurked South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, a Huckabee supporter. Romney "has got to perform at an extraordinary level," said Beasley, "because he's spent so much money here."

Then, he added, "Folks in South Carolina, all they think of is the scarlet letter M--Massachusetts. How can you be conservative from Massachusetts?"

The other GOP candidates, including Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback, have been hitting Romney hard all week on his conservative credentials. A poor showing tomorrow may force some Republicans out of the race.

Working the crowds, Rep. Hunter, wearing a cowboy hat, was impressed with the power of the illegal immigrant issue. "The amazing thing to me is the people here know more about the border fence than people in the border states," Hunter said.

The San Diego-area congressman said he would continue in the race no matter what the Ames results are. "Our campaign starts here," he said.

Finnegan's complete campaign day story is now posted on this website and will appear in Saturday's print editions. C-SPAN will broadcast live coverage of the straw poll Saturday. Further coverage of the poll results will appear late Saturday and in Sunday's newspaper.

--Andrew Malcolm

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