GOP Candidates Court Football Fans at Iowa-Iowa State Tailgate

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By Ali Vitali

Few things are more classically Iowa than the Iowa-Iowa State football match up. And in 70 degrees of still-summer sunshine, with clouds dotting the Jack Trice Stadium backdrop, fans took to the tailgate — but they weren’t the only ones in attendance.

Republican 2016 hopefuls wasted no opportunity to bring their brands of conservatism to the Hawkeye State at the Iowa GOP Tailgate, held next to the stadium.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio poses for a photo with students during a tailgate party before the football game between Iowa and Iowa State Saturday in Ames, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP

Among those in attendance were Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Gov. Scott Walker, and current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

Many of these candidates, perhaps wisely, demurred when asked which team they favored in the game.

Marco Rubio told reporters that he favors Florida teams, while Donald Trump explained at a rally earlier in the day in neighboring Boone that he would decline to take sides.

While politicians often inject some football into their stump speeches — Chris Christie and Trump were among the candidates who weighed in on Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, for example — the convergence of football with politics is not necessarily always met with enthusiasm by fans and tailgate goers.

Just down the road from the GOP Tailgate tent, many of the fans circled around barbecues, drinking beer and playing corn hole, either oblivious to the fact that presidential candidates were in attendance or choosing not to attend.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t a showing at the GOP tailgate tent. A rowdy crowd of a few hundred people lent their ears to the candidates. But it was a small percentage when considered in the context of the over 60,000 tailgaters and revelers.

"I’m just here for the football," Misty Adams told NBC News — but that didn’t mean she lacked thoughts on the race. A Republican, Adams supports Jeb Bush and says that Donald Trump "needs to tone it down a bit" and "get a filter." Her husband, Brandon, added: "I’m just afraid he’ll put us in the wrong war."

Micah Lang, 36, likes "how brutally honest" Trump is, but doesn’t think he’s "the right person to run."

Coozy-covered beer in hand, Dan Olmstead, 27, echoed Lang’s sentiment.

"No one else is stepping up to the plate, saying this is bad, that’s bad, whatever," Olmstead said. "He’s at least out there doing what he believes." But when asked if he’d be voting Trump anytime soon, he wavered: "yes and no. He’s got these extremes."

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But for each of these voters who vacillate on whether they could support Trump come caucus-time, the polls tell a much different story — and so does Trump’s campaign on the ground.

The business tycoon is leading in the most recent Quinnipiac poll with 27 percent, extending his lead in the early caucus state for the second month in a row.

Many Trump staffers on the ground in Iowa see this as a sign that the race is all but won in Iowa, and maybe even in terms of the nomination.

Trump District Representative John Hulsizer told NBC News that in the eyes of the campaign, "we’re viewing it as we’re locking this thing up ... Just like Mr. Trump said, you may as well go right to the elections in November."

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When asked if it was done and over, Misty Adams responded: "I hope not ... If it comes up between him and Hillary, I don’t know what I’ll do because I don’t want either one of them."

The tailgates, rivalry, and drinking persisted long after the candidates arrived, spoke, and left. And when one fan was asked if she had any thoughts to add on the political events of the day, she simply said: "Just go State!"

Danny Freeman contributed.