IF you're planning a vacation to Iowa this weekend, keep your
eye on the corn. It may be the only thing that's native.
Republicans by the busload are descending on Iowa for tomorrow's
straw poll, a kind of practice primary for presidential contenders.
Held in a handful of states, these events are typically little more
than party fund-raisers with minor political significance.
Does anyone remember Sen. Alan Cranston of California winning
the 1993 Democratic straw poll in Wisconsin?
But this isn't just another state. The Iowa caucuses are the
first stop on the 1996 campaign tour. They are all important,
especially for candidates trying to break from the pack.
In previous years, the straw poll has provided an early clue to
what will happen - as well as insights into the strength of various
GOP constituencies and candidates' political machines.
Pat Robertson, for instance, won the poll in 1987, signaling the
rise of the Christian right, and took a strong second in caucuses
the following February, ahead of Vice President Bush. Since then,
the event has become a national headline.
Padding the cheering section
To ensure a strong showing this year, candidates are padding
their cheering sections. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and conservative
columnist Pat Buchanan are bringing in out-of-state supporters by
the busload. Famous non-Iowans Charleton Heston and football coach
Mike Ditka will be on hand to shoot turkeys with Texas Sen. Phil
Gramm, who also has a fleet of buses on the road. Too far away to
drive, friends of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander have
"It's a dress rehearsal for the caucuses," says Hugh
Weinbrenner, a political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines.
"Bob Dole will try to prove that he merits the No. 1 position in
the race. The others will try to embarrass him."
Indeed, for all of the campaigns, the event will be an
opportunity to test their organizations. "We'll evaluate the
performance of the Buchanan leader in each county, and eliminate
those who are not effective," says Marlene Elwell in the Des Moines
office of Pat Buchanan.
The event is also important below the presidential level. With
some 8,000 people expected to participate - in other words, buy
tickets to the straw poll dinner - it's a cash cow for the Iowa
Republican Party, which hopes to complete its takeover of the state
next year by capturing the last two Democratic holdouts: the state
Senate and the seat of US Sen. Tom Harkin.
"It will be the biggest fund-raising event in the history of
Iowa," says Gov. …