August 14, 2006

2008 presidential contenders swarm Iowa fair

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - In a month when most voters
would rather hit the swimming pool than debate tax cuts,
potential 2008 White House candidates are swarming Iowa to win
new friends, visit the state fair and maybe eat a pork chop on
a stick.

A trip to Iowa, site of the first presidential nominating
contest in 2008, is a summer rite of passage for most national
candidates. This year, 12 contenders are visiting Iowa in
August to lay the groundwork for possible campaigns.

Many of those trips include a pilgrimage to the state fair,
which opened last week and attracts more than a million people
over 10 days. With big crowds and photo-friendly traditions
like cows sculpted from butter, the fair is an irresistible
lure to politicians.

"If you're running for president or for state office in
Iowa, and there are 100,000 people a day coming through here,
you probably need to be here," Iowa Secretary of State Chet
Culver, the Democratic candidate for governor, said on Monday
after a fairground news conference with Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh,
a likely presidential contender in 2008.

Bayh, on his fifth visit to Iowa this year, wandered the
fairground shaking hands and grabbed a local delicacy, pork
chop on a stick, before heading off to a string of fund-raisers

for state candidates.

"This is a great place to see a lot of people at one time,"
Bayh said as he waited to view the butter cow, a refrigerated
must-see for presidential candidates for years.

"What better place to come than a state fair," Bayh said.
"I enjoy this. You're in the wrong line of work if you don't."

Bayh's stop followed fair visits last week by New York Gov.
George Pataki and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both
Republicans, along with Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Sen.
Joseph Biden of Delaware, both Democrats.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Bill Frist of
Tennessee and Sam Brownback of Kansas were to visit the fair
later this week.


Also hitting Iowa in August are Republican Govs. Mitt
Romney of Massachusetts and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, along
with both members of the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket,
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Sen. John Edwards
of North Carolina.

The candidates come to Iowa to meet local activists, help
state candidates and build some grass roots momentum for a
potential campaign. They also get direct exposure to voters and
a healthy dose of local media coverage.

"The value is that you get a sense of talking to real
people about issues," Vilsack said of fair visits. "If you sit
down at the pork tent or the beef tent or wherever, and you sit
down at a table with just ordinary folks and say 'So, what's on
your mind?' -- trust me, you'll get a real good read about
precisely what people are concerned about."

The campaign visits to Iowa have come sooner and heavier
this year than in previous cycles, which some state activists
attribute to the big field of potential candidates -- more than
a dozen in each party -- and the wide open nature of the race.

For the first time since 1952, the presidential campaign in
2008 will not feature an incumbent or a sitting vice president,
giving all candidates equal delusions of grandeur.

"It's more intense than ever," said former Iowa Democratic
Party Chairman Gordon Fischer. "Hardly a few days go by without
a presidential candidate in town, it's really amazing."

But meeting a presidential candidate is no thrill for many
Iowans. While Bayh received a polite welcome from most Iowans
on Monday, his warmest greetings came when he bumped into
several groups from his native Indiana.

"You know, there's going to be a million people here and
they're not here to meet the politicians," Pataki said during
his visit to the fair. "They're here to have fun at the fair
and have a pork-chop on a stick."

(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson)