- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is contemplating replacing the closely watched Iowa presidential straw poll slated for summer 2015 with four regional “festivals” that would let GOP White House hopefuls mingle with voters, a move that could significantly alter candidate strategies in the nation’s first presidential caucus state.

Since 1979, the Ames Straw Poll has been held in the Iowa college town during the summer before a contested Republican primary, and traditionally is considered the first beauty contest of the presidential election season.

But it has proven an expensive and unpredictable political event as candidates scramble to bus in supporters to garner the vote. In past elections, it has allowed nonestablishment candidates like evangelist Pat Robertson, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to gain momentum with strong finishes.

But Mr. Branstad has made clear in recent years that he believes the straw poll has outlived its usefulness.

He is now contemplating an alternative for summer 2015 that would invite all the presidential nomination contenders to events in each of Iowa’s four congressional districts, his spokesman Jimmy Centers said.

The festivals would resemble country fairs, with food, drink, music, speeches, handshaking, backslapping and occasional baby-kissing. But the regional festivals would not be contests — no candidate could draw the short straw because there would be no poll.

The Straw Poll has attracted hordes of press and campaign staff who spend millions of dollars that benefit local businesses in the state — good for Iowa, but bad for candidates picking up the tab for buses, entertainment and food for the thousands of voters each campaign hopes will cast a straw vote for its candidate.

Initial reactions to Mr. Branstad’s concept range from cool to cautious.

“Having four regional events will kill the national interest that the Straw Poll brought to Iowa,” former Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne Robinson said.

The Branstad thinking is that more voters will get involved if the events are regional because they will be able to travel shorter distances within their own congressional districts instead of roaming all the way to Ames.

Former Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker strongly opposed Mr. Branstad when the governor initially proposed killing the Ames poll. Mr. Spiker said it wasn’t up to the governor, but rather it was the party that decides such things. But the door opened to the junking of the Ames poll when Mr. Spiker resigned earlier this month as chairman after forces aligned with Mr. Branstad won elections that will soon put them in control of the state party.

A former ally of Mr. Spiker is of two minds on the issue.

“I would like to look for ways to preserve the Iowa Straw Poll,” said Iowa Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler, who is also a member of the state party central committee. “I believe that it is a first good test as to a candidate’s organizational strength and brings into focus those issues that will help frame the debate.”

“However, I am open to looking at alternatives such as regional events, if they can produce the same results,” Mr. Scheffler said.

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