Video by Sara Kenigsberg
DES MOINES, Iowa -– The crowd waiting to hear Michele Bachmann speak at the Iowa State Fair on Friday was large, and restive. Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, was 30 minutes late.
There was a stir, and Bachmann arrived on a golf cart, with a coterie of aides and a large bodyguard or two. She was introduced and jumped up to speak from the Des Moines Register soapbox. Then, abruptly, in less than three minutes, she was done.
"I'm coming out to shake your hand," Bachmann told the crowd. Her husband Marcus came up front with her and shook a few hands. But then Gabe Aderhold, a 17-year old from Edina, Minn. -- who had confronted other Republican candidates earlier in the day about their opposition to gay marriage –- stood and began to yell several times at Bachmann, "Shame on you!"
Bachmann has made several controversial and negative comments about homosexuality, and Aderhold yelled at her: "I'm a second class citizen because of you, Michele! Second class citizen! What about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every American, Michele?"
Just moments after Aderhold began to heckle her, Bachmann and her entourage moved quickly from the stage and through the crowd, at a pace rapid enough that some spectators appeared to get lightly shoved out of the way. She jumped on her golf cart with her aides and drove away from the crowd.
Rick Ryan, a 37-year-old steel worker from the area, joined a scrum of people moving alongside the golf cart and began to hound Bachmann.
"[Sarah] Palin's been hanging out here all day. What's the big cut and run?" Ryan asked, with an edge in his voice. After the golf cart had gotten further away, Ryan, who said he caucused for Barack Obama in 2008 and for George W. Bush before him, began muttering to HuffPost. "Typical woman: show up late and fold under pressure," he said. "You really want that as president?"
A Bachmann spokeswoman did not respond to a query about why the candidate bolted so quickly from the event. But Ryan was not the only onlooker who was irritated.
"She just lost my vote," said Jim Yencer, 64, even before Bachmann arrived. He was angry with her tardiness. "I might vote for that Rick Perry."
The incident was an indication that on the eve of the Ames straw poll –- a major test with significant implications for Bachmann and other candidates -– the Iowa frontrunner was feeling the pressure of high expectations.
And one Tea Party activist said that as Bachmann has gained notoriety and risen in the polls, her increasingly professional and polished campaign operation has begun turning off her grassroots supporters.
"In the beginning, Michele, before her national staff came on, she was really good one-on-one," said Kathy Carley, who helps her husband Jim lead a Tea Party group in Des Moines called Save Our American Republic (SOAR). Carley said she had become "one of the rebels of the Tea Party" because she planned to support former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Saturday's straw poll over Bachmann.
"If you go to a Tim Pawlenty event, he's always on time, which is a plus, his stump speech is short, he usually takes no less than 10 questions and then stays around for 30 to 45 minutes and actually visits with you," Carley said. She walked off, then came back and pointed to the crowd waiting for Bachmann to arrive. "This is a perfect example. She's never, ever on time."
"I hope [Pawlenty] survives the straw poll because I think he's got a lot to offer," Carley added.
The scene evoked the sense of uncertainty currently pervading the Republican presidential primary field. Perry, the current Texas governor, is expected to announce he is running for president on Saturday in South Carolina. His entry will pose a challenge to the current frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and could push Pawlenty or Bachmann down and eventually even out of the race, depending on which of the two performs better in the straw poll.
Palin's appearance in Ames -– the day after the third Republican debate and the day before the straw poll –- once again stoked speculation that she is preparing to join the field and run for president.
She talked with reporters about what a campaign might look like, but told The Huffington Post she could not give a percentage for how likely it is that she will run.
A handful of Perry supporters, clad in burnt orange "Americans for Rick Perry" t-shirts, handed out information on Perry and talked to potential voters. Nate Crain, the national finance chairman for the Perry group, said they were hoping to turn out between 150 to 250 people to write in Perry's name on the ballot in Ames. He said that Iowans had given them a warm welcome, but complained about the Iowa Republican Party, who ruled in July that neither Perry's name or Palin's name would be allowed on the straw poll ballot, and denied Americans for Rick Perry space to set up a booth in Ames.
"It just doesn't make any sense," Crain said. "Everybody has been the sweetest here, except for the Iowa state party."
Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn blanched a bit when he was asked in an interview if he thought Perry had planned his announcement for Saturday in an attempt to overshadow the straw poll and squelch the bounce of whoever wins it.
"I can't speak to that. I can't speak to what motivates them. I'm not going to look into their soul," he said. But then, he added, "I don't share the viewpoint that it's a diss to Iowa."
He said Perry's trip to Iowa on Sunday and Palin's presence in the state Friday showed that Iowa is "the center of the political universe."
Palin spent several hours on the fairgrounds, most of it in the midst of a crush of admirers and onlookers. Some were there simply to gawk, and said they did not actually like Palin.
Karissa Andrews, 22, of Urbandale, Iowa, stood at the outskirts of a crowd around Palin and told her mother Kathy, 58, that she wanted to tell Palin to "go home."
But then she inched forward and said, "I can't believe it's her."
"It's cool to see her face. She's a famous person," she said.
Even Kathy, who said she loved Palin, said she would rather see Bachmann be the nominee, though she admitted she might change her mind if Palin entered the race.
Then there was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Many think the Libertarian firebrand, who turns 76 on Aug. 20, might win the straw poll. The oldest of his 11 grandchildren, Matt Pyeatt, a 30-year-old public school administrator from Lake Jackson, Texas, cheered on his grandfather as the retiring congressman spoke to a mid-size crowd around noon on Friday.
"I think there's a legitimate chance of winning. It's going to vault the campaign and it's going to be a sign to the mainstream media that they can't continue to marginalize him," Pyeatt said.
Craig Robinson, a former state party official who now blogs about state politics full time at TheIowaRepublican.com, weighed in, saying, "If Ron Paul wins, it shows Iowans are so concerned about fiscal issues that they'll overlook a lot."
"Ron Paul has really invested heavily in organizing the state," Robinson said. "So you know, saying that he could have an organizational victory at the straw poll I don't think is a stretch. Can he break through and break out of that 10 percent margin that he typically gets for the caucsues? Probably not. But a straw poll victory I think he can definitely do."
If Paul does win, grumbling about Iowa's influence over the Republican primary process will reach new levels. Some Republicans will complain that Iowa voters don't deserve to go first on the primary schedule.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), the state's senior senator, defended the Hawkeye State against critics.
"When we're living in a democracy and I live in this great state of Iowa, I'm not going to argue with the intelligence of the Iowa voter. The key thing is if I back somebody in October, I'm not going to back somebody just because they might carry Iowa," Grassley told HuffPost. "I want to back somebody who's going to be able to run a national campaign. And that isn't just winning Iowa. You could be coming in second or third in Iowa. What resources do you have to go to New Hampshire, South Carolina?"
"It's a fact that Iowa has made some presidents, at least two or three," Grassley said. "When you're in a position that you've made presidents, and they wouldn't be president if they hadn't come to Iowa and campaigned, how can you denigrate the whole process that we have here?"