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Iowa Republicans Make Early Presidential Choices

Fifteen months before the November 2008 presidential election, Iowans belonging to the Republican Party (GOP) have held an informal preference poll on the GOP White House contenders. VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at this early test, and its impact far beyond Iowa.

In the middle of August, it is so hot in the mid-American state of Iowa that the air seems to shimmer. Crops stand tall in the fields, the harvest about a month away. But something else is also growing in Iowa -- interest in next year's presidential election. And candidates are there.

At Iowa State University in the city of Ames, thousands of Republicans gather to hold a straw poll. The top vote getters gain greater visibility and more campaign contributions. For the poll's participants, it is grassroots democracy in action.

Voter Gail Teal says, "Well, I feel it's important that everyone takes part in the voting process. We have that freedom. We're fortunate that we are able to. And I think we should take advantage of that."

Many candidates treat the straw poll as if it was a real election. Some candidates spend millions of dollars building recognition and support.

Politics are at a fever pitch. The scene resembles a national political convention. Before each candidate speaks, his supporters fill the coliseum floor. And when the speech is over, the throng marches out, to be replaced by those supporting the next contender.

Throughout the day, voters cast their ballots and get their thumb inked to show they participated. It costs $35 to take part. Some observers say the straw poll better reflects a candidate's coffers than the White House aspirant's real appeal to the voters.

But to participants, the real winner is Iowa itself. Participant David Lundberg says, "I think it's important that we represent the central United States, the grassroots of the United States. If the candidates can come here and field here first, rather than go to the high population centers, I think that's good for the nation."

Outside the coliseum, there is a festival atmosphere, with tents set up by the presidential candidates. Lots of food, live bands and the candidates stoking enthusiasm.

The Iowa Republican Straw Poll has traditionally attracted the Party's most committed members. These people are driven by issues they feel should be at the forefront of campaign discussion. Participant Suzanne Stannick says, "The important issues this year to me are taxes, the economy, pro-life issues [anti-abortion], and immigration."

Iowans plan to meet again in early 2008 to cast formal votes in their state's caucus. Like a primary, a caucus determines how many of each candidate's delegates will be sent to the party's national convention. The snow may be deep by then, but the political action will be as hot, as it was in August. As before, the entire nation will be watching.