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Ames Straw Poll Will Be Test Of Organization For Presidential Campaigns

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DES MOINES, IOWA – Watermelon and water.

That's all that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee handed out to supporters in 2007 at the Ames Straw Poll. But he ended up with a stronger than expected second place showing -- which led to him winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008 -- because of one thing: organization.

Craig Robinson was the political director for the Iowa Republican Party at the time. Now, he runs an influential blog in the state called The Iowa Republican. In an interview, Robinson described the mechanics of what enabled Huckabee to get the results he did in Ames four years ago.

"It was just watermelon, water, maybe a sandwich, and himself and his band on a stage. Very simple set up," Robinson said. "But why it worked was he was on the stage constantly, identifying people that came and listened to him: 'Hey, have you voted yet?' 'No.' And they got them in line. They were running back and forth buying 25 tickets, 50 tickets, just constantly."

Robinson predicted there will be between 12,000 and 14,000 votes in the straw poll on Saturday, and said that there is "a big pool of undecided voters." While Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) would be the natural beneficiary of more casual participants -- based on Bachmann's flair for publicity and outsized personality -- Robinson said the mechanics of Ames makes organization key.

"The question is, are they prepared to welcome people that they don't have identified [as supporters]? It's always the catch with the straw poll because you're buying tickets, you're preparing food. So you want to take care of your supporters, but are you opening your doors to be able to capture undecided straw poll attendees? The candidate that does will be able to do well," Robinson said.

The straw poll is a test of organizational heft for the presidential campaigns. They recruit and provide for volunteers to attend and vote for the candidates, paying for their way on buses, their $30 entry fee and paying for their food. There is also entertainment.

Bachmann has been expected to win the straw poll, but although she is the most dynamic candidate and polls the best, two others -- former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- have out-organized her. Paul, in particular, has been building support in Iowa for years and is expected by some to win.

If Pawlenty wins or comes in second, he'll get a boost. If he is a distant second, third or fourth, his campaign will be in trouble. That's why Pawlenty has been working so hard to meet voters and sign them up -- campaigning for weeks in Iowa -- and is running shuttle buses to the straw poll to make participation easy and painless for supporters.

"Having that kind of apparatus in Ames," Robinson said, "can be the difference between winning and staying in the race and losing and going home."

Video by Sara Kenigsberg

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