STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. It's Independence Day.

We are now deep into summer vacation, time for many people to kick back, unless, of course, you're a baseball player, or a reporter, or especially a presidential candidate. For the candidates the summer schedule is loaded with frequent, even more than frequent, visits to states that will host the first presidential contests of 2012.

So this week NPR News is building a travel guide of sorts for the candidates, looking at the required stops and must-see attractions for any serious presidential hopeful.

NPR's Don Gonyea takes us to our first stop, Iowa.

DON GONYEA: Everybody knows that Iowa is the corn growing capital of America. Agriculture is king.

(Soundbite of a hog calling contest)

GONYEA: And that means a top item on your campaign itinerary has to be the annual Iowa State Fair.

Unidentified Man #1: Here, pig, pig, pig, pig.

(Soundbite of oinking)

GONYEA: Some will check out the hog calling contest. Then they'll hit the Midway and try some fairgrounds delicacies - something deep fried and served on a stick, no doubt. And they'll drop by a booth run by the Des Moines Register newspaper, where they'll stand among the bales of hay and make a short impromptu speech, as Hillary Clinton did four years ago.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. Secretary of State): People kept saying, well, you know, you got to come to the very best fair. That's the Iowa State Fair. Is that right?

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: And you can ride the bumper cars, as Barack Obama did back in '07.

But you absolutely have to be seen with the life-sized cow carved out of butter.

(Soundbite of a GPS voice)

GPS Voice: Head north on I-35, 24 miles to Exit 111B...

GONYEA: Those directions get you from Des Moines to the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll, a huge event for Republicans on the second Saturday in August. Campaigns use the straw poll to show off their organizational strength; bussing people in from far and wide, including from out of state. There are giant air conditioned tents, barbecue picnics, lots of speeches, and live music.

Four years ago, Mike Huckabee asked for votes and played in the band.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): And we know that one of the most important things that we have to do is take care of some business. That business today is voting for Mike Huckabee.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: The straw poll is non-binding, but it can give a fledgling candidate new credibility - it did that for Huckabee. Or it can spell the beginning of the end. Former Vice President Dan Quayle was there in 1999.

Vice President DAN QUAYLE (Republican, Indiana): The Washington establishment, they want to control this election. They want to tell you who to vote for. I say let's send them a message.

GONYEA: The message for Quayle that day was that his campaign was going nowhere.

Iowa has 99 counties and each has a favorite diner or a family restaurant. In the town of Urbandale, it's the Machine Shed, where the decor is right off the farm and the meals home cooked.

Unidentified Woman: Smoked sausage and the pancakes.

(Soundbite of restaurant chatter)

GONYEA: Candidates should also find their way down to Madison County - yes, it's home of the bridges. It's also the birthplace of John Wayne, for real. And it's the home of some quaint old-timey barbershops.

Mr. JIM KINSER (Owner, Jim's Barber and Style Shop,): My name is Jim Kinser and I have a barbershop here in Winterset, Iowa, Jim's Barber and Style Shop.

GONYEA: So it's reasonable to assume that sometime after Labor Day this year that some candidate is going to walk in your door?

Mr. KINSER: It's quite possible. It's quite possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Last go round, candidate Chris Dodd shot his TV commercials in Kinser's shop.

This is a probably a good moment to talk about the dress code for candidates. Ditch the tie and those expensive Italian shoes. Witness the ribbing former Senator Fred Thompson took from Fox News four years ago.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man #3: The occasional slipup, like wearing Gucci loafers at a country fair, can be countered by other images, like holding squealing piglets.

(Soundbite of a squealing piglet)

GONYEA: Which brings us back to agriculture. Candidates will spend a lot of time on family farms. But 27-year-old Des Moines entrepreneur Mike Draper wonders why they also insist on bringing the farm to the city. Hay bales are fine on the farm, but at campaign events in Des Moines? Draper rolls his eyes.

Mr. MIKE DRAPER (Entrepreneur): Yeah, I've always wondered if they're doing that for people like out East, or if it is actually for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DRAPER: As if they think if they put hay bales behind them that we'll trust them more, or if they do it for like a good photo op for somebody out there.

GONYEA: So what does a candidate get out of a summertime worth of travels through the Hawkeye State? Political strategist Matt Paul says they need to learn how think on their feet and to engage voters.

Mr. MATT PAUL (Political Strategist): More than anything, you've got to use the time between the summer and the late fall, early winter, and get better as a candidate and as organization.

GONYEA: You have to get better. It's hard work, Paul says. But it's the answer any successful candidate needs to be able to give when asked what they did on their summer vacation.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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