Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Straw Poll Plays like a Political Picnic

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Straw Poll Plays like a Political Picnic

Article excerpt

AMES, Iowa -- John Taylor, from Indianola, was in the middle of explaining why he was backing Elizabeth Dole in the Iowa straw poll when he was interrupted by his friends, the Reynolds family, from the same town. They were all wearing Lamar Alexander T-shirts.

It was that kind of day here, a day when families and neighborhoods from all over state boarded buses or shuttles or hopped into their own cars and converged on this college town for a party the likes of which Iowa has never seen.

There was a serious purpose to the gathering -- a straw poll that was seen as a key moment in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But it was also more than that. It was part picnic and part political convention, the old-style kind. "It feels like a convention where you don't know what's happened," said Tom Rath, an adviser to Alexander.

An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people came to the Hilton Coliseum in Ames -- so many that they had to close the doors at one point and move the last voters to booths away from the coliseum.

They came to cheer on their hopeful for president, and they did so with good humor and camaraderie, visiting one another's tents and cheering all the candidates as they spoke. The only discordant note came when Steve Forbes tried to address the crowd inside the coliseum, only to be drowned out by his own supporters stomping on balloons.

Though there were bands and long lines for the food and the toilets, Woodstock '99 this was not. The tradition of gathering GOP activists from across Iowa in a meaningless contest began more than 20 years ago as a means to raise money and build support for the state party. Over the years, it has undergone a metamorphosis into a multimillion-dollar event where Republican candidates flex their muscles.

Front-runner George W. Bush greeted a middle-age gang of Republican motorcyclists led by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R). The Texas governor worked a rope line through the bikers, all of whom drove new, expensive Harley-Davidsons and Victories.

The bikers powered into the facility here, parking right next to a Teamsters encampment and Patrick Buchanan's tent. …

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