Last Friday’s five county GOP event in Tiffin was a must-attend event for those of use who cover presidential politics in Iowa. It’s not often we get an opportunity to see multiple candidates share the same stage and work the same room just days out from a major contest in the campaign.
The event was a major success. Over 400 people packed the Tiffin High School lunchroom to listen to four presidential candidates: Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Thaddeus McCotter. Two people with their eyes on unseating Congressman Dave Loebsack in the new 2nd Congressional District also spoke.
In an odd way, I think this event encapsulated the presidential race in Iowa up to this moment. This race is wide open. If you are one of those people who say, “I like [insert candidate name here], but I just don’t know if they can win.” You are fooling yourself. Nobody in this race is the clear frontrunner, nobody.
Here are some of my observations from the event.
1. McCotter showed up early and really worked the room. For McCotter to be successful he needs to endear himself to Iowa voters, and that takes time. McCotter is quirky, very funny, and undoubtedly intelligent. What he struggles with is speaking, which was evident on Friday night.
2. Americans for Rick Perry outworked all of the actual campaigns whose candidates were actually in attendance. About a half dozen Perry staffers in Texas Longhorn orange shirts worked the room before the speeches began. They did a nice a job.
3. Romney had two staffers working the crowd. They did equally well in working the room, but the Perry staffers had them out numbered. Still, it’s amazing to see the aggressiveness of the candidates who are either not in the race or are not campaigning in Iowa compared the staff’s of those who are.
4. Newt Gingrich gave the best speech. Gingrich received a standing ovation after his remarks. He was the only candidate that brought the crowd to their feet. He also shook hands with everybody as they left. I can’t help but look at Gingrich and wonder what might have been. If Rick Santorum can campaign in Iowa on a shoestring budget why can’t Gingrich? I think had he just embarked on a 99 county tour and focused on Iowa, he could have won the Ames Straw Poll, baggage and all.
5. A month or so ago Rick Santorum said that he was the “little engine who could.” I don’t disagree. Santorum is solid on the stump and his work ethic in campaigning in the state seems to be paying off. He picked up the endorsement of the Mayor of Tiffin that night, and I’m also told that wasn’t the only elected official in the crowd who is now planning to vote for Santorum in Ames.
6. Tim Pawlenty gave a solid speech and was well received. Some who I talked to indicated that Pawlenty has been really working the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids corridor. I think some were surprised that Newt got the standing ovation and not Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s staff also deserves credit. While the candidate didn’t arrive until minutes before he was scheduled to speak, his staffers made sure that everyone was invited to join him at the Straw Poll as they made their way to the parking lot.
In all, it was a good night for everybody involved. However, the event didn’t help paint a picture of what will happen at the Straw Poll on Saturday. Instead, it confirmed that the race is wide open and will likely have a different feel after Ames.
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