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Inside the Ames Straw Poll and what else to watch for

August 12, 2011 |  5:18 am

Massachusetts Republican Representative Oakes Ames 1804-1873Oakes Ames was born to a shovel-making blacksmith in Massachusetts back in 1804, when Charles Pinckney thought he had a shot at defeating Thomas Jefferson in the first presidential election involving electoral votes.

Americans don't know much about Oakes. And for good reason.

He was a capitalist, a House member and an early Republican when there were some in the Bay State.

He was also a staunch believer in the need for a transcontinental railroad to tie this vast land together.

As it happened, so was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president who also pushed the Capitol's construction as a sign of national unity, even during the war.

So, when the cross-country railroad idea stalled at 12 miles of track, something to do with that Civil War and money, Lincoln put the imposing Rep. Oakes Ames in charge of kicking some Union butts into action. The result, some years later, was the Union Pacific Railroad.

In tribute, Oakes Ames' last name was attached to a tiny town of 840 souls in north-central Iowa. How proud Ames must be. He never lived there. Today, about 60,000 people do, when....

...Iowa State is in session. And for the next few days so will most of America's Republican presidential wannabes in what the U.S. media treats as a major political story every four years.

It's the Ames Straw Poll, a meaningless vote tomorrow in which voters are wooed with barbecue and ice cream, ballots are bought and ballot boxes are stuffed as if they were in Chicago.

Newspaper surveys aside, the straw poll is the earliest indication of how the GOP field is shaping up when the corn is maturing and little else is going on except the state fair. It's a transitory measure, to be sure. But with no one yet challenging a stumbling President Obama on the Democratic side, it's the only politics game going on.

Started more than 30 years ago, the straw poll is actually a state party fundraiser. See, Republicans don't spend every day at the country club.

Tickets are sold, mostly to candidates who give them to supporters to come vote. The party had an auction last month to sell off locations next to the Hilton for the candidates' air-conditioned tents where free food, entertainment and speeches are offered all day. (FYI, C-SPAN will cover the events and voting live from 1 p.m. ET.)Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry

The straw poll event is a festive, humid, political schmoozefest. Think county fair with way too many reporters snooping around.

Winning the Ames Straw Poll used to be a good sign of impending success in the Hawkeye State's winter caucuses, the opening statewide salvo in the presidential selection process.

At the cost of upwards of $2 million, which was real money back in 2007, Mitt Romney won that straw poll. But he lost the caucuses to Mike Huckabee, the former preacher who rode Iowa's formidable evangelical vote to his only state win.

This year Romney is focused on New Hampshire. So is Jon Huntsman. Newt Gingrich is off somewhere selling books.

The straw poll will be watched closely not so much for who wins if, say, Ron Paul's banditos pull off a win as they have in other meaningless straw votes.

If Michele Bachmann wins, she's cemented a place in the top-tier for the next few months. Don't underestimate the native Iowan's retail political skills, as our pal Byron York warns in a perceptive piece here.

If Tim Pawlenty doesn't finish second or, worst case third, his chances (and donors) will likely fade. It's also a chance for Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter to do better than expected and cling to campaign life a while longer.

The bad news for Ames is that the weekend's biggest political news is likely to occur 1,224 miles away in Charleston, S.C. That's the site of the RedState Gathering, an annual invitation-only assembly of conservative online commentators and bloggers who spend the weekend chatting with like-minded politicians such as Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Nikki Haley.

This year the guests include Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, whose aides leaked early this week that he would make known his presidential intentions at the gathering. Perry wouldn't be trying to steal any prairie thunder from his competitors, would he? As it happens, The Ticket had planned to be there too. So we'll keep you posted.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Library of Congress (Rep. Oakes Ames, 1804-1873); Patrick Semansky / Associated Press (Perry).