The Washington Times - November 23, 2012, 11:31AM

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the days since Republicans lost an election many in the party thought was theirs, chatter has been bubbling about what the party should do to recover.

For Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, it starts with the smallest of actions: abandoning the state’s now-infamous straw poll.

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Once a festive checkpoint on the road to the leadoff Iowa caucuses, the poll has devolved into a full-blown sideshow, Mr. Branstad and other critics contend. They say it’s an unfair and false test that has felled good candidates and kept others from competing in the state.

“It’s just something that’s gotten totally out of control,” said veteran Republican consultant Charlie Black. “It’s been bad for years, but no one has had the guts to say it until now.”

The poll, which morphed over the decades into a closely watched early test of caucus campaign strength, had “outlived its usefulness,” Mr. Branstad told the Wall Street Journal this week. Some activists contend it amplifies the voices of candidates lacking broad appeal.

Mr. Branstad says he has widespread support for a different event to replace the poll, held in Ames the summer before every contested presidential caucus since 1979. It has become a lavish affair, where campaigns spend heavily to wine, dine, entertain and chauffeur their supporters by bus to the Iowa State University campus.

Critics have increasingly called it a shakedown. Not only do campaigns buy up thousands of tickets for their supporters to attend the event, they bid thousands of dollars for prime spots to pitch tents near the voting area on the college campus.

It’s all to show early support in Iowa, where the precinct caucuses traditionally lead off the early-state nominating march, even though only a fraction of caucus-goers turn out for the straw poll.

“It’s a tedious effort. It costs a lot of money. It’s totally irrelevant at the end of the day. It used to be a test of organization,” said Ed Rollins, who managed Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign at the time she won the 2012 straw poll. “Today, it’s a lot of effort and a lot of energy that really is not worth the effort.”

Only about 17,000 turned out for the 2011 straw poll, one-seventh the size of the roughly 120,000 who voted on caucus night in January.

In 2008, the front-runners, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, opted not to compete for the straw poll, turned off by the event’s heavy influence by Christian conservatives. They ran scaled-down caucus campaigns as a result.

Without the straw poll, the caucuses may lure back all top-tier Republican contenders, Mr. Branstad’s supporters say.