Straw poll attracts horde of journalists
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE/DES MOINES REGISTER
August 11, 1999
Web posted at: 10:11 a.m. EDT (1411 GMT)
AMES, Iowa (Des Moines Register) -- CNN is here. Fox News Network is on the way. And the folks from "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" have already been mingling with the locals.
By week's end, Ames will have had more than its 15 minutes of fame. It will be the political center of the nation, magnified by network satellites and live links around the world.
A record number of journalists - as many as 500 - are coming here to record the results and hoopla of Saturday's Republican straw poll.
"Ames becomes the equivalent of the WWF slug-fest with all of the candidates in the ring at the same time," said Carl Cameron, a political correspondent for Fox News, referring to the pro wrestling circuit. "Everybody knows it's meaningless, but it's great theater."
The event, which garnered scant coverage when it started in 1979, is gaining international attention this year. Some reporters say they are coming because the mock election has the potential to winnow the field of presidential candidates. Others say the event is overblown and media-driven, but they can't resist the spectacle.
Officials in Ames and at Iowa State University are glad to play host no matter why the reporters come here. The event will be held in ISU's Hilton Coliseum. "We'll become one of the world cities for a day, maybe the weekend," said Ames Mayor Ted Tedesco.
Proud local folks are giddy with anticipation. They hope their town can steal the spotlight during the weekend coverage. There should be plenty of it.
CNN plans to dispatch 50 reporters and technicians to the event. The crew already is assembling a set inside the campus Memorial Union, where the cable network plans to base its "Inside Politics" show later this week.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all have applied for media credentials with the state Republican Party, said spokeswoman Ann Dougherty.
Reporters from Japan, London and Germany also will be in town. American newspapers covering the straw poll range from the Washington Post to the North English Record, with a circulation of 1,000 in eastern Iowa.
The dizzying coverage was enough to make Ames Tribune Editor Michael Gartner roll his eyes Tuesday morning.
A Des Moines Register reporter had dropped by to cover the Lehrer crew's coverage of the Ames Tribune's coverage of the straw poll.
Producer Mary Jo Brooks asked Gartner why the straw poll seemed to be so important this year.
Tersely, Gartner responded into the microphone: "Because you're here. . . . It's a wonderful media event."
The straw poll is actually a $25-per-vote fund-raiser for the state GOP.
But many consider the event an early test of the Republican candidates' strength before next winter's caucuses kick off the 2000 race for the White House.
Candidates are investing more time and money in the straw poll, and that drives media coverage, said Bruce Morton, who has been covering national politics since 1968, most recently with CNN.
Morton and Cameron said a front-loaded primary schedule makes early events more important. Some states have moved the dates of their presidential primaries forward so they have more voice in picking presidential nominees. California, for instance, moved its primary from June to March.
"This may end a candidacy or two," Morton said of the straw poll. "I don't think any of us thought that was true last time."
That is why Brooks and her crew were in town. That, and the fact that Congress is on break this month.
"August is always such a slow news time," Brooks said. "Given the absence of other news, it's a fun story to cover. And it's a lot more pleasant here now than it will be in February."
Click here for more Iowa straw poll coverage from the Des Moines Register.