17,000 Iowans gathered today on the campus of Iowa State University to take part in a poll that unofficially marks the jump-off of the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The Ames Straw Poll, which is effectively a glorified carnival, is a chance to test the public-opinion waters before campaigning kicks into high gear; a first- or second-place Straw Poll winner has nabbed the Iowa caucus every time. While some candidates chose to ignore the carnival-like festivities — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich all opted out — others took the opportunity to go full-on county fair in an attempt to curry favor among the poll voters.
Tim Pawlenty offered Iowans free bus rides to the polling grounds in exchange for a signed promise to vote for him, roamed the grounds handing out free T-shirts, and plied them with Famous Dave's Barbecue and Dairy Queen Blizzards.
Hermain Cain, in spite of being received particularly well at the poll, was reported to have offered up the tamest food spread.
Michele Bachmann, who is expected to benefit from a turnout that was greater than anticipated, brought along an air-conditioned tent and staged a performance by country singer Randy Travis. She also offered up free hot dogs, T-shirts, and water bottles. Every time she and her husband emerged to greet supporters, they were mobbed by adoring fans.
Rick Santorum brought Mike Huckabee along to appear in his tent and tried to woo poll attendees with peach jam that allegedly came from his family farm.
Ron Paul's tent was reportedly the flashiest — as it should have been, given that he paid the Iowa Republican Party for its prime location — and featured a dunk tank and a giant inflatable slide.