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Iowa Straw Poll Offers First Sip Of 2012

JACKI LYDEN, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Texas Governor Rick Perry has joined the field of Republican presidential candidates. He made the announcement during a conference call with South Carolina voters, ahead of a speech planned for later today. His candidacy could cast a shadow over some other of the other GOP presidential hopefuls.

In Ames, Iowa, today Republican voters will take part in the state's straw poll, considered the first ballot box test of the 2012 presidential field. NPR's Don Gonyea has this report from the Iowa State Fair.

DON GONYEA: There's a small lot on the main thoroughfare at the state fairgrounds that's called the soapbox. It's sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper as a place for candidates to make impromptu speeches. Yesterday, the soapbox was a busy place. Businessman Herman Cain kicked it off at 10:30 a.m.

HERMAN CAIN: I am a business problem solver. That's what I have done all of my life, and I happen to believe that those same skills will work in Washington, D.C., from the White House.

GONYEA: Candidates are allotted 20 minutes at the soapbox. Next was Michigan congressman Thaddeus McCotter, who's as low-key as he is unknown.

Representative THADDEUS MCCOTTER: Throughout the history of this country, we've been faced with great challenges. And in every period of time, no matter how difficult, the American people have transcended them.

GONYEA: But 10 minutes later, the fiery Rick Santorum, the former senator.

RICK SANTORUM: Look at what is happening right now with Obama-care. It is the greatest threat to liberty. It is, in fact, the end of liberty.

GONYEA: And then at noon, congressman Ron Paul - talking financial crisis and the gold standard.

Representative RON PAUL: And it's because we did issue this funny money, this paper money. Paper money never works. It never lasts, just for a short period of time.

GONYEA: Right after Ron Paul came former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

TIM PAWLENTY: So what we need to do is this: Tell Barack Obama he had his chance; it ain't working.

GONYEA: And an hour later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

NEWT GINGRICH: What if we took seriously the current problems in the United States, and what if we decided that we, the American people, were going to insist the politicians in Washington learned to work with each other?

GONYEA: Then, scheduled for 4 p.m., the woman seen as the Iowa front-runner - but she was late. And the huge crowd, far bigger than the others drew, was baking in the afternoon sun. After about 30 minutes, congresswoman Michele Bachmann bounded onto the stage.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: With your help tomorrow at Ames, Iowa, we're going to make Barack Obama a one-term president.


GONYEA: The crowd was into it, but less than three minutes into her remarks came this.

BACHMANN: God bless you, everyone. See you tomorrow.


GONYEA: Then, as the Des Moines Register later reported, a gay activist started shouting at Bachmann's husband. He runs a clinic where gay rights groups say he tries to turn gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. The abrupt departure left a disappointed crowd, which slowly filtered back to the other fair attractions - one of which just happened to be a prominent but so far non-candidate who was elsewhere on the fairgrounds, Sarah Palin.

As she toured the livestock buildings, people clamored for an autograph or photo. Reporters also followed close. One from CBS radio asked...

UNKNOWN MAN: Hi governor, you looking for votes?

SARAH PALIN: Hi there. Looking for votes? I'm looking for hands to shake, and I'm looking for fried butter on a stick, and a fried Twinkie as soon as I can get there. Just looking to talk to the good people of Iowa...

GONYEA: And such was the scene at the Iowa State Fair yesterday. The straw poll is today. Handicap it like so - Bachmann is the front-runner, but watch out for Pawlenty and Paul. Mitt Romney is on the ballot, but not contesting, so don't worry about him, and keep an eye out to see how many use the write-in space on the ballot for another name, Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.