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Iowa to showcase White House hopefuls

The Iowa State Fair is a showcase for turkey calling, prized sheep, 600 pounds of butter carved in the shape of heifer and another breed lurking this year - 2008 White House hopefuls.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Iowa State Fair is a showcase for turkey calling, prized sheep, 600 pounds of butter carved in the shape of heifer and another breed lurking this year - 2008 White House hopefuls.

The 152nd version of the state fair gets under way Thursday and the 11-day event is expected to attract more than 1 million people. Iowans will tell you it seems about half are running for president.

"There's no place in America where you have more potential impact on how people will talk about policy than Iowa," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a potential presidential candidate who plans to attend. "And if you want to see Iowans, there's no better place in the entire year."

Fairgoers also will get to see Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York, and Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Joe Biden of Delaware. Another possible 2008 candidate - Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack - obviously will be there. On the primary calendar, Iowa comes first in 2008 with its leadoff caucuses.

Politician food favorites
In the past, candidates have gone to great lengths to fit in, with devouring fair food a test of their authenticity.

A pork chop on a stick is a typical candidate favorite - after all, Iowa tops all other states in pork production. But in 2003 it was a problem for one presidential candidate: Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an observant Jew. Barred by his religious beliefs from eating pork, he settled on a deep-fried Twinkie, taking a much-ballyhooed bite before declaring the confection "delicious."

Gary Slater, the fair's chief executive officer, can't think of a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who skipped the 2003 fair. Iowans take it all in stride.

"We sort of look at it as another one of the attractions," Slater said. "Although I guess it's not for some people."

Foreign terrority
Not all candidates feel at home competing for attention with cows carved in butter.

"It's an opportunity to be yourself," said Joe Shanahan, a Democratic consultant and former communications director for Vilsack. Shanahan was quick to warn, "Iowans know if you're being yourself."

While most candidates have relatively uneventful experiences at the fair, some might look at it as their Waterloo - and not the city in Iowa.

Biden's presidential campaign bottomed out after the 1987 fair, when he was caught cribbing rhetoric from a British politician during a Democratic candidate debate held in a sweltering building on the fairgrounds.

Presidential candidates from the Midwest have some advantage at the fair, which offers competition in monster arm wrestling, marble shoots, spelling, turkey and duck calling and fiddling. There are exhibitions of the best in class in swine, sheep, goats and cattle from Angus to Shorthorn.

Blending in
Bill Lacy, who worked for Republican Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, said the native Kansan was a natural with fair crowds, although he had a peculiar habit.

"Senator Dole would find all of the Kansans at the state fair and introduce them to Senator (Chuck) Grassley," Lacy said. "I thought, 'The irony. We're here to meet Iowans and here he is searching out Kansans to introduce to Senator Grassley.'"

Shanahan says the most successful fair-going politicians will look a lot like, well, regular fairgoers.

"You know, if you start eating, walking around with your pork chop on a stick," he said, "you'll get juice on your hand, on your face, on your shirt. But you don't care. You're at the fair."

If that doesn't seem natural for some pols, Shanahan offers this advice: "We can tell if you go looking for the deep-fried Snickers, a deep-fried Twinkie, that this is a novelty for you. ... Most of us wouldn't eat that stuff."

Lacy remembers the summer of 1987, and his first encounter with the heifer made of butter.

"I just stood there looking at it," Lacy said. "Couldn't quite take my eyes off it. Couldn't quite believe it. They put it behind glass, I believe. But I had this intense desire to just take a knife and flick off a piece of it, put it on a piece of bread. See what it tasted like."