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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Vote for Forbes and get a gold pin

And much more: a T shirt, music and a free ride to the poll. Will Iowans buy the hucksterism?

By Hugh Sidey/Greenfield

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)

TIME magazine

Steven Grubbs, the earnest young Iowa coordinator for Steve Forbes, was in a slight crouch, weaving back and forth before the 45 people in Bon's Bakehouse on the sweltering town square of Greenfield, Iowa.

He was in his fevered pitch for them to leap at multimillionaire Steve Forbes' offer to join his hired caravan to the city of Ames next week. That's where diehard Republicans will gather on Aug. 14 for a day of speeches and tub-thumping and then cast a vote for one of 11 candidates. The Iowa poll, when it was invented 20 years ago, was a fund-raising gimmick by the party to tap into campaign war chests by making the front runners and the foolhardy pay for the privilege of participating. But with a front-loaded primary season and George W. Bush miles ahead of his heel nippers, the Ames straw poll has taken on an unnatural significance. Republican candidates want to trip up Bush, and they're happy to spend lots of money to do so. And if they turn up losers, the Ames contest, for all its illegitimacy, may force them out.

So that's why Grubbs was pandering. "I know it's hot and it's a long drive to Ames, so we will pick you up in an air-conditioned bus and take you there and bring you back--if you promise to vote for Steve Forbes in the poll," he exhorted, as his listeners munched 148 cookies and downed eight gallons of tea and lemonade, all on Forbes' bottomless tab. The candidate, who had just given his nice speech about the evils of Washington, the tax code and the Federal Reserve, sat close by with his trademark political look, which is somewhere between bewilderment and a grin.

"We will buy the $25 ticket and give you the $50 bus ride," Grubbs continued, voice rising as if he were in some kind of auction. "We are going to have the biggest tent up there ... Four national entertainers. We haven't picked them yet, but they will be big-name entertainers ... The television networks are going to be there... We are going to have a great barbecue to which you are all invited free. We may have balloon rides. And bring your families if you want to. There is going to be entertainment for the kids, face painting and games."

This political Elmer Gantry has been loose in the Iowa cornfields for weeks, making his speech after Forbes finishes his on flat tax and fortitude. Grubbs, an Iowan, is an example of the modern Iowa, which has become big-part yuppie, little-part farmers and small towners. But for all its struggle to be like California and Connecticut, most of Iowa's area remains farmland, and the crops underlie the economy. The biggest political pretenders must at some time or another take off their suit coats and go to the land where strange things can happen.

The people in front of Steve Grubbs looked slightly embarrassed and maybe a little put out as he preached. Here was another chapter in the book about political peddlers come to slicker the rubes. As I watched this scene in my hometown, I think I knew who was being slickered. Next day a high school friend, Yvonne Schildberg, a Republican activist, told me, "I went to be polite. I'm for Elizabeth Dole." Another friend said, "This straw poll is really an insult to anyone's intelligence."

Grubbs never faltered that day. His next offering was a Forbes T shirt showing the Forbes campaign trail. Another Forbes aide came skipping through the room holding the T shirt high, as if he were in a television auction. "Greenfield is on the T shirt," roared Grubbs. Just then a man from Stuart, a town up the road, whispered in my ear, "What are they thinking about? Forbes doesn't have the chance of a snowball in hell down here. Doesn't he have anything better to do with his money?"

Grubbs was not yet done. "And if all that I have mentioned for you is not enough, we have something more for you. If you can bring some of your friends and neighbors along with you to vote for Steve Forbes, we will give you something really special: a gold Forbes pin for your lapel." I looked at some of my friends, and I'd swear they were close to laughing out loud. But that resolute politeness prevailed. (A local reporter said later, "I was waiting for the Forbes secret decoder pin.")

Sabina Forbes, the candidate's wife, sat off in a corner of Bon's with a faraway look that suggested to one of my old pals that she might be dreaming of spending overheated days like this not in Ames but aboard the family's famous jet, Capitalist Tool, flying off to soothing climes.

There were lingering laughs in the tiny sidewalk crowd as the huge Forbes buses glided out of town. A couple of people who had once played in the Greenfield marching band debated what music the bus loudspeaker had been playing when the caravan arrived at the town square. They voted for the Colonel Bogey March.

But for all the fun, there was an undercurrent of sadness. The people in Greenfield and other rural towns are on the edge of disaster. The prices of cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans--the bedrock of Iowa's agriculture--are at levels of the Great Depression. "There is no way right now that anyone can make money here in agriculture, no matter how you figure it," said farmer Joe Vandewater. He took note that the day before in the same room, Forbes had not mentioned price, cost or any firm plan for the future of agriculture. But there was the free barbecue--and the little gold pin.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 9, 1999

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