Presidential Hopefuls Take in the Fair                      Main page
August 2006 - More than one million people attended the 2006 Iowa State Fair, held August 10-20, making it the fifth straight year with over a million in attendance.  People came from around the state and the country to see the livestock, the famous butter cow, or the farm equipment, to enjoy the rides and entertainment, and to chow down on a corn dog or pork on a stick (over 70,000 were sold, a record). 

The 2006 Fair also proved to be a magnet for '08 presidential hopefuls, drawing nine major potential candidates: home state Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA), Gov. George Pataki (R-NY) (Aug. 11), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) (Aug. 11-12), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) (Aug. 13), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) (Aug. 14), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (Aug. 15), Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) (Aug. 17), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) (Aug. 17), and Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) (Aug. 18) as well as longshot candidate John Cox (R-IL)Former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) was in state during the period of the Fair but did not manage a visit. 

Photos DEMOCRACY IN ACTION; Brownback courtesy Brownback staff; Frist courtesy VOLPAC; Richardson courtesy Richardson staff.
These political leaders are all thinking about running for president, and Iowa's first in the nation precinct caucuses, scheduled to be held in January 2008, are just 17 months off.  Accompanying the hopefuls as they made their rounds through the Fair were varying numbers of aides, local politicos, key supporters and advance people, sometimes a few security personnel, and a few reporters and photographers.  Local political leaders or key supporters serve as sherpas, guiding the hopefuls through the Fair, and introducing them to folks along the way.  State Sen. Stew Iverson (R), who is Iowa chairman of Gov. Pataki's Freedom PAC, seemed particularly gregarious and helpful at introducing his man to fairgoers.  Others included State Sen. Dick Dearden (D), who has not committed to anyone yet, accompanying Sen. Bayh, State Sen. Chuck Larson (R), consultant and national advisor to Sen. McCain's Straight Talk America, accompanying the Senator from Arizona, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), also not yet committed, accompanying Majority Leader Frist. 

Each of the hopefuls brought their personal style to the task of working the Fair.  The Fair provides an opportunity to meet a lot of people, eat unhealthful food, and get a bit of sunburn, but a politician eying the White House does not want to make a slip or gaffe.  Not surprisingly none of the hopefuls attempted the Big Slide.  But some were more gregarious or inquisitive or hungry than others.  Sen. Biden, for example, talked at length with the Delaware County's Pork Queen and Ms. Pigtails in the Pork Producers tent.  Sen. McCain seemed to fully engage the Fair, talking to 4H'ers and marveling at the big boar.  Newt Gingrich took a family approach, bringing his wife Callista and a grandson, and they went through the "Little Hands on the Farm" display.  Most of the prospects found their way to the Democratic and Republican party booths in the Varied Industries Building, where they stopped to shake hands at the relevant booth; generally they also crossed over and said a quick hello to the people manning the opposing party's booth.

Beyond just enjoying the Fair, some of the hopefuls were able to attach sense of purpose or a policy angle to their visits.  In addition to Iverson, Gov. Pataki walked around with Bill Northey, the Republican nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, and he took many opportunities to introduce Northey to fairgoers and to sing his praises.  With gas prices in the area of $3 a gallon and Iowa a major producer of ethanol, renewable energy was a common theme.  Gov. Pataki, who had recently delivered a major speech on energy, focused on the subject during a radio interview and remarks to reporters.  Sen. Bayh held a press conference on renewable energy with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chet Culver in front of the cattle barn.  Gingrich and Gov. Vilsack participated in a dialogue on renewable fuels.  Sen. Frist highlighted his medical credentials by making a stop at the Iowa Health Systems booth.

Also of political note, the Des Moines Register runs a political Soap Box, an area off Grand Avenue delineated by hay bales, where candidates are alloted time to make short speeches.  They may then take a few questions; some fairgoers will stop to listen but many others are not interested and just walk on by.  There was no political speechifying for the presidentials at the Fair this year, however, for the area was only open for major 2006 candidates for statewide constitutional offices and Congress. 

Several close congressional races, the gubernatorial campaign and the closely split Iowa legislature (Republicans have a 51 to 49 majority in the House and the Senate is tied at 25 to 25) have provided a convenient excuse for many visits by '08 presidential prospects.  They have been visiting the state since the first part of 2005 and by the end of August nine major potential Democratic candidates made 42 visits totaling 78 days, and 11 Republican prospects 53 visits totaling 88 days.  August 2006 was the busiest month yet in terms of potential candidate traffic with 12 major propects making 18 visits totaling 38 days.  Six Democratic hopefuls made 10 visits totaling 23 days.  Sen. Biden accounted for more than half of the time, with four visits totaling 12 days, although this fell a bit short of his announced plan for 15 days.  Six Republican hopefuls made eight visits totaling 15 days.  -E.M. Appleman

2002 Iowa State Fair
Copyright © 2006  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action