Walking amid the good folk and food booths and rides at the Iowa State Fair, it's hard to get a sense people are fixated on politics in the aftermath of the Republican debate and before the important straw vote in Ames.
Iowans seem more intent on viewing the giant carved-butter cow in the ag building or sampling the newest featured food at this fair -- deep fried butter on a stick. This interesting new delicacy (?) seems to draw the eyes and mouths of the folks who wander past all of the other fried foods and foods on a stick. I thought to myself, the only thing that would make this all complete would be for a cardiologists' convention to be held next door. Ironically, there is a booth here at the fair offering free blood-pressure tests.
Turning back to the mundane world of politics, many of the GOP candidates have shown up at the fair to speak at something they call the "soapbox," where there is no box and no soap. It's a stage with hay bales where candidates address voters and fairgoers with all the fervor of their stump speeches. Five of the candidates will show up in the aftermath of the debate to try to get a jump on the Ames Straw Poll.
So where do we stand in this in-between time in Iowa? In the debate, some candidates reappeared; some candidates disappeared; and one new, big player who's about to appear was on everyone's minds.
For the last few weeks, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty have basically gone off most folks' radar screens, but that changed. Each showed up in a much more forceful way. Pawlenty had a number of skirmishes and exchanges with the other candidates, especially Michele Bachmann -- who definitely held her own. Gingrich seemed to want to get in an argument more with the moderator than the other candidates, and he showed some passion we haven't seen in a while. Jon Huntsman, who has had a hard time getting traction since his announcement, basically disappeared over the two hours. He didn't get much time, and what he said was not very memorable.
And finally, the candidate who is about to appear, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was part of the conversation at the debate and much of the discussion amongst the media as well as voters outside the hall. If you had to pick a winner last night, it was probably Perry. You got a palpable sense that everybody is waiting for him to get into the race, and all of the candidates know they are going to have to react to this Texan who will walk in with boots on and bravado in hand.
The debate highlighted that in the back-and-forth between Bachmann and Pawlenty, who see the results of the straw poll as key to their future prospects. Each needs to do well to be able to continue to build credibility and cash; if they don't meet expectations, their prospects are greatly diminished and may not make it to the Iowa caucuses in January.
The campaign is about to take a whole new turn in the aftermath of the straw vote, and the intensity will only increase. Ames won't pick the presidential winner, but it certainly will help decide the losers. Many candidates will either drop out not long after the straw poll or be left floundering. Although Perry will initially expand the field when he gets in, it will quickly shrink after the straw vote.
So enjoy the last days of summer, eat something fried and on a stick, take your kids or your friends to a fair in your area -- and get ready for a roller-coaster ride in the up-and-down of Republican politics starting next week.
The post originally appeared in National Journal.