DES MOINES - The Iowa Republican Party gave out a record-setting number of media credentials for the Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames, a fact that might even be more enticing to White House hopefuls than whatever the final ballot count might be.
Party officials say they've credentialed roughly 700 members of the media for Saturday's festivities at the Hilton Coliseum on Iowa State University campus.
That's about 200 more than the previous record set four years ago when 500 credentials were given out, but whether that speaks to intense interest in the event, a proliferation of who or what kind of organization is defined "media," or some other explanation is hard to determine.
"We're still working on getting everything put together," said Casey Mills, who handled credentialing for the Iowa Republican Party and who was sorting and printing credentials Tuesday. "We'll have them split up to television, print and so on, I'm just not sure when."
Christopher Larimer, a political science professor from the University of Northern Iowa, said some of the media interest likely has to do with what's seen as a still-open Republican field.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the perceived frontrunner with Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in second. But Romney hasn't been campaigning in Iowa as much as Bachmann or some of the other contenders, such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain.
"My thinking is (the media interest) has a lot to do with the Republican field and how undecided it is," Larimer said. "I really think that, like the caucuses, it is an expectations game, and at least from the party's standpoint, more uncertainty is better."
That's because more uncertainty can make better story lines than something that is considered a foregone conclusion, so more media may show up.
"The straw poll really is a media event," said state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, a Wilton Republican and early supporter of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's bid for president. "The media likes a horse race."
That's good for the Iowa GOP's bottom line because it brings attention to the event, which is, at its heart, a fundraiser for the party. Campaigns rent tent space from the party, voters pay $30 to cast a ballot and the candidates themselves encourage Iowans to show up to the event, often times underwriting the cost of their ballot and even their transportation.
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Mills said he wouldn't speculate on how many people might show up on Saturday. In 2007, 14,302 ballots were cast, and in 1999, Iowans cast 23,685 ballots, according to Iowa Republican Party officials. The winners in those contests were Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, respectively.
State Rep. Erik Helland, a Republican from Johnston who supports Pawlenty, said the straw poll is more than just media coverage. He said it's about connecting with the thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of Iowans who show up, because they are the activists who can help drive a campaign through the February caucuses.
Kaufmann said it's also a great chance for lesser-known candidates to get exposure to a national audience.
"I'm thinking here of someone like Rick Santorum, who might not have a lot of money for media, he gets the free media coverage," Kaufmann said. "Overall, I think the real winner is the state as a whole and anybody who goes there, because where else do you have an event where you have all of these people in one place and you can talk to them and listen to what they have to say?"