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In Iowa, Corn Is King And Candidates Are Everywhere

It's officially summer vacation time. But if you're a candidate running for president, you'll spend your summer shaking hands in early voting states. Here, a look at the required stops and must-see attractionsin Iowa.

Everybody knows that Iowa is the corn-growing capital of America. Agriculture is king.

And that means a top item on your campaign itinerary has to be the annual Iowa State Fair.

Some will check out the hog-calling contest. Then, they'll hit the midway and try out the fairgrounds delicacies — something deep-fried and served on a stick. And they'll drop by a booth run by the Des Moines Register, where they'll stand among the bales of hay and make a short, impromptu speech, as Hillary Clinton did four years ago:

"They say if you want to come to the best fair, you need to come to the Iowa State fair. Is that right?"

In 2003, Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham campaigned near a cow sculpted in butter at the Iowa State Fair.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Getty Images
In 2003, Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham campaigned near a cow sculpted in butter at the Iowa State Fair.

You can ride the bumper cars, as Barack Obama did, but you gotta be seen with the life-sized cow carved out of butter.

The Iowa Straw Poll

Heading north on I-35 to exit 111B takes you from Des Moines to the Ames, Iowa, Straw Poll, a huge event for Republicans on the second Saturday in August. Campaigns use it to show off their organizational strength, busing people in from far and wide, including from out of state.

There are giant, air-conditioned tents; barbecue picnics; lots of speeches; and live music.

The Straw Poll is nonbinding, but it can give a fledgling candidate new credibility; it did that for Mike Huckabee, who four years ago asked for votes and played in the band. Or, it can spell the beginning of the end.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle was there in 1999. "The Washington establishment," he said, "they want to control this election. They want to tell you who to vote for. I say let's send them a message."

The message for Quayle that day was that his campaign was going nowhere.

Chow Down

Iowa has 99 counties, and each has a must-visit diner or family restaurant. In the town of Urbandale, it's the Machine Shed, where the decor is right off the farm and the meals are home-cooked.

Then there's the Pizza Ranch, a favorite of conservatives with more than 60 locations across the state, and where ordering food gets you free use of the meeting room.

An Old-Timey Barbershop

Candidates should also find their way down to Madison County — yes it's the home of the bridges. It's also the birth place of John Wayne (for real) and some quaint old-timey barbershops.

Jim Kinser owns a barbershop here in Winterset, called Jim's Barber & Style Shop. Is it fair to say at least one candidate will drop in for a trim in the coming months?

"It's quite possible," Kinser laughs. "It's quite possible."

Last go-round, candidate Sen. Chris Dodd shot his TV commercials in Kinser's shop.

Ditch The Tie And The Gucci Loafers

This is probably a good moment to talk about the dress code for candidates. Ditch the tie and those expensive Italian shoes. In 2007, former Sen. Fred Thompson, presumed to be a real contender for the GOP nomination, earned a ribbing from a Fox News report when he toured the Iowa State Fair in Gucci shoes. He became the talk of the fair — for the wrong reason.

Which brings us back to agriculture. Candidates will spend a lot of time on family farms. But 27-year-old Des Moines entrepreneur Mike Draper wonders why they also insist on bringing the farm to the city. Hay bales are fine on the farm, but at campaign events in Des Moines? Draper rolls his eyes.

"Yeah, I've always wondered if they're doing that for people like out east, or if it's actually for us. If they think if they put hay bales behind them that we'll trust them more, or if they do it for like a good photo op for somebody out there."

So what do candidates get out of summertime travels through the Hawkeye State? Political strategist Matt Paul says they need to learn how to think on their feet and to engage with voters.

"But more than anything," he says, "you've got to use the time between the summer and the late fall, early winter, and get better as a candidate and as an organization."

You have to get better. It's hard work, Paul says, but it's the answer successful candidates need to be able to give when asked what they did on their summer vacation.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.