Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Tea Party is the Big Winner at the Ames Straw Poll

Whether you take your tea sweet or unsugared, there was plenty served up at the Ames Straw poll, where, with so many variables in play, the biggest winner in the unscientific tally was really the Tea Party.

Rep. Michele Bachmann is taking her victory lap today after edging out Rep. Ron Paul to finish first in the Ames Straw Poll, but for Tim Pawlenty the race is over.

The conservative anti-government voters who form the core of the Tea Party essentially delivered a win yesterday for not one, but two candidates: Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Paul (R-Tex.), the latter with a close second-place finish. Bachmann and Paul made a strong connection with Tea Party voters, while Pawlenty did not.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry also is believed to have picked up some Tea Party backing in a write-in campaign that gave him more votes than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose name was on the ballot, though he did not formally participate in the straw poll.

"Rick Perry won the straw poll at an event I was at. He has a lot more Tea Party support than many believe," Tweeted Tea Party Nation Chairman Judson Phillips.

Those results for Bachmann, Paul and Perry are a pretty strong indication the Tea Party is highly energized and easy to organize, even as polls show it is increasingly unpopular with most Americans. The Tea Party vote turns out, and the loosely held organization will be a deciding factor -- perhaps the deciding factor -- in the GOP nomination process.

It is not worth arguing one way or the other about Pawlenty's distant third-place finish. The former Minnesota Gov. was without a message (especially within the super-charged Tea Party and evangelical voters) and remained where he was going into the straw poll -- atop a second tier of candidates, at best. It was enough of a sign for him to quit the race.

Bachmann received twice as many votes as Pawlenty, and overnight he went from spinning his third-place finish as a fresh start for his campaign to admitting he had as much traction as a bald tire in a blizzard.

Pawlenty's problem was not simply a weak finish in a straw vote that is bought by the candidates with a $30 ticket, food and drink and lots of live (mostly country) music. He already had been overtaken by the new kid on the block, the governor of Texas, who has early momentum and is an instant darling of the main stream media and another option for the Tea Party voters.

Perry brings a plain-talking, slash-first-and-ask-questions-later approach that almost sounds like a common-sense way to solve the nation's problems. He drew on an angry optimism to attack President Obama and reach out to Tea Party and evangelical voters with his presidential campaign announcement speech yesterday half a country away in Charleston, S.C.

"The fact is for nearly three years, President Obama has been downgrading American jobs, he's been downgrading our standing in the world, he's been downgrading our financial stability, he's been downgrading our confidence, and downgrading the hope for a better future for our children," Perry declared.

The takeway for the Obama campaign may be Republican field is telegraphing the election's biting partisan lines of attack, barring a spectacular unforeseen event or the economy getting even worse for President Obama. The jabs will be loaded with Tea Party rhetoric.

Not all the titans of the Tea Party emerged unscathed. One Tea Party darling may be steeped in a downward spiral: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's pre-game boom was a post-game bust.

Palin stole some of the limelight by showing up in Iowa this weekend, but Mama Grizzly failed to make a blip in the straw poll (She was not on the ballot, but there were some expectations that she would make a showing as a write-in candidate). The base Republicans have decided she is not running.

The wild card Tea Party player will continue to be Paul, the man that the mainstream media cannot seem to mention without adding, "... but conventional wisdom is that he cannot win the nomination." Now the conventional wisdom is Bachmann is a time bomb because she cannot win over independent voters.

The problem with conventional wisdom is that this is not a conventional primary season. This is the Tea Party's first run in a presidential election and its members are prone to the unconventional.

It seems almost counterintuitive in this climate to hear pundits arguing that the only reason Paul had a strong finish in Ames was because his followers are so loyal and well-organized. This 2012 GOP primary landscape is new ground, and the Tea Party is set to stake its claim to some of its available acreage.

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