Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who launched his 2008 presidential run at the Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames, signs books for admirers.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who launched his 2008 presidential run at the Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames, signs books for admirers. Liz Halloran/NPR
They love "the Huckster" in Iowa, and he loves them back.
And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says that Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a "tactical error" by shunning Saturday's straw poll, instead opting to announce his candidacy for president today in South Carolina.
"He's raining on the parade in Iowa," said Huckabee, taking a break from signing books for the happy crowd mobbing him Saturday morning. "I'm not against Rick at all, but this is the biggest day of the year for Iowa Republicans."
It was a big day here for Huckabee in 2007 when he finished a surprising second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the straw poll. That showing launched the ordained Baptist minister to a win in the Iowa caucuses a few months later and to the top tier of Republicans competing for the party nomination.
Huckabee, who consistently polled at the top of Republican presidential preference polls before he announced he wouldn't run in 2012, told NPR that being at the straw poll elicits "nostalgic moments" rather than regret.
"Who knows?" the Huckster said with a grin, turning to sign more books before heading off to play bass in a gospel set with candidate, singer and Baptist preacher Herman Cain.
Dann and Shari Harwood of Norway, Iowa, say Texas Gov. Rick Perry has all the right stuff.
Dann and Shari Harwood of Norway, Iowa, say Texas Gov. Rick Perry has all the right stuff. Liz Halloran/NPR
Down the way, past the busy booths for the NRA, Pro-Life America and National Right to Work, a couple Rick Perry supporters suggested that perhaps pundits like Huckabee were overstating Iowa anger over the straw poll slight.
Dann and Shari Harwood of Norway, Iowa, decked out in maroon "Perry for President" T-shirts, said the Texas governor is, according to Dann, "saying all the right things about all the things I care about."
He ticked off the list: gun rights, tough immigration rules, job creation, no tax increases.
Shari says she likes Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, both competing at the straw poll, but believes Perry is better positioned to defeat President Obama next year.
"I think in a general election, he'd come out better than Obama," she said.
They both planned to write in Perry's name on their straw poll ballot, as does Steve Agan, a farmer from Winterset, Iowa.
Nobody has been a "big breakout" in the current field, he said. "After today, that may be clearer."
He pointed over his shoulder at Newt Gingrich, speaking a few dozen feet away at the Des Moines Register "soapbox" stage.
"That guy," Agan said, "he's got the name, but I don't think he can win."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's venue on the straw poll grounds was the most crowded.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's venue on the straw poll grounds was the most crowded. Liz Halloran/NPR
Corn dogs. Ice cream. Giant cinnamon rolls. "Beef mashed potatoes." Ice cream.
Bachmann imported an Iowa State Fair menu to the straw poll, and that lineup, plus her appeal to the GOP base here translated into long lines at the most crowded venue on the straw poll grounds.
The Minnesota congresswoman, who comes into the poll as one of the favorites to win, was scheduled to speak to the poll crowd inside the Hilton Coliseum at 2:20, following comments by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — two other favorites — and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Just outside Bachmann's tent, Minnesotan Ann Webster sported a handmade button that welcomed questions.
Webster said she and Bachmann got to know each other many years ago when, as young mothers, they worked together on education issues.
"She has some good ideas and I'm glad she's in the race to talk about what she believes in," Webster said.
That doesn't mean, however, that she's yet in Bachmann's camp.
"I thought Newt won the debate," she said, referring to the GOP presidential debate Thursday. "I thought the exchange she had with Pawlenty hurt both of them."
"But she's a pretty strong lady," Webster said. "It's all in God's hands."
Ralph Rosenberg and Larry Jenkins, both of Ames, were among a handful of Democrats who showed up, not to vote, but to stroll the carnival, sample the wares and take the temperature of their Republican neighbors,
"They have a glint in their eye," Jenkins said. "They smell blood in the water."
Rosenberg, a lawyer and former state legislator, said he was surprised at how many young people were in the crowds and at some of the organizations who had booths on the straw poll grounds.
"Wind power, AARP, the Alzheimer's Association — it's interesting to look at the demographics," he said.
About how they're feeling about Obama? He inherited significant problems. But, they both acknowledged, a re-election campaign slogan of, "It Could've Been Worse," is a difficult call to arms.
Just ask former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, Rosenberg says, the Democrat ousted last year by former Gov. Terry Branstad.
Candidate Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan congressman, plays guitar onstage with one of his sons.
Candidate Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan congressman, plays guitar onstage with one of his sons. Liz Halloran/NPR