AMES, Iowa — With its oceans of corn, a fixation with ethanol and an overwhelmingly white electorate smaller than Hillsborough County's, Iowa has long drawn skepticism and scorn for its influence in picking presidential nominees.
This cycle, though, the Iowa caucuses are in even greater danger of being marginalized.
For Republicans, the state's celebrated role in winnowing the field increasingly looks less like a competition between top-tier candidates than a contest for finding the candidate most appealing to evangelical voters.
"Michele Bachmann comes off to me as very sincere in her beliefs. I'm a born-again Christian, and she espouses very strong Christian beliefs," homemaker Joanne Blanchard said, cheerfully summing up her enthusiasm for the Minnesota congresswoman before a rally in Indianola on Friday.
About 60 percent of the people who participate in Iowa's Republican caucuses identify themselves as evangelical Christians, and increasingly Republican candidates without strong evangelical appeal are concluding it's not even necessary to compete.
John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008 after devoting little attention to Iowa. Mitt Romney, having spent more than $10 million and finishing second behind Mike Huckabee in 2008, is putting limited focus here this time, while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is not campaigning at all.
Not that Iowa has lost its place at the center of the presidential nominating system. More than 700 journalists have sought credentials to cover today's Ames Straw Poll, a mock election where roughly 14,000 Republican activists with $30 tickets cast ballots for their preferred candidate. Candidates bus in supporters, buy their tickets and entertain with music and free food.
An overhyped, fake election? Yes. An irrelevant indicator of a campaign's strength? Not necessarily.
"If you can't get 3,000 people out on a sunny day to vote for you at Ames, how are you going to get them out to vote for you at the caucuses when it's dark and freezing and just desolate on a January night?" said Republican strategist Tim Albrecht, who cut his teeth organizing Steve Forbes' straw poll campaign in 1999. "And if you don't have the money for buses and $30 tickets, how are you going to compete in Florida, where it's really expensive to campaign?"
Though officially meaningless — not-yet announced candidate Rick Perry of Texas won't be on the ballot and Romney and Huntsman have waged no campaign for straw ballot success — the straw poll has been a key milestone in the past. Poor showings have ended the candidacies of such people as Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and Sam Brownback, while strong showings can provide momentum.
"Tomorrow is the down payment on taking the country back, because we have watched the president absolutely put this country in economic ruin,'' Bachmann said Friday, promising to provide straw poll attendees free food, an air-conditioned tent and a performance by Randy Travis. "People all across the country wish they were in your shoes. They all wish they could be Iowans tomorrow, from Maine to California to Washington state to Florida, they all wish they could be in Iowa tomorrow."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has focused most of his resources on Iowa and needs a strong straw poll finish.
"We've got to move from the back of the pack to toward the front of the pack, to show some progress," Pawlenty said, playing down expectations.
Victory at Ames hardly assures a strong candidate, however. Televangelist Pat Robertson won in 1987, and veteran Iowa campaign strategists say Texas congressman Ron Paul has a good chance of winning this year. Paul, who paid the Iowa GOP $31,000 to secure a prime spot at Iowa State University, has a large and fervent following but almost no chance of winning the Republican nomination.
A Paul victory will only encourage critics who suggest Iowa's relevance in the GOP nomination is diminishing.
"Iowa Republicans have marginalized themselves to the point where competing in Iowa has become optional,'' former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen wrote in a column printed in the Des Moines Register in April that infuriated Hawkeye state Republicans. "With several major candidates likely to bypass Iowa and the odds rising that Iowa's skewed caucus electorate could support candidates with limited general election appeal, the likelihood of New Hampshire being called upon to make a correction grow."
Iowa Republicans are naturally sensitive to the suggestion that evangelical activists dominate their caucuses.
"If that was the case why would Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul's first ad in Iowa be on their opposition to raising the debt ceiling? Iowans have the same concerns as all Americans do," said Iowa Republican chairman Matt Strawn.
The economy dominates every stump speech in the state, but voters also invariably bring up faith and morals.
"Of course the economy is a top issue, but I don't think you can separate social issues from politics," said Doug Adkins after listening to Pawlenty at a Denison coffee shop in western Iowa. "Values matter."
The state may not pick winners in the Republican contest, but if it is losing its political heft you sure wouldn't know if from the legions of candidates and journalists gnawing pork chops on sticks or admiring the cow made out of 600 pounds of butter at the Iowa State Fair this week.
"I'd say 700 credentialed members of the media here this weekend, Sarah Palin here, Gov. Perry coming Sunday in addition to every other candidate here speaks to the fact that Iowa is the center of the political universe,'' Strawn said.