Finally Here, Ames Straw Poll First Test Of 2012

AMES, Iowa (AP) — After months of laying the groundwork, the first test of the Republican presidential candidates’ viability is finally here.

Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll marks the first time Republican voters weigh in on the GOP presidential field with ballots and comes just as Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was to enter the campaign during a visit to another early nominating state.

The nonbinding results in Ames, Iowa, were likely to foreshadow the coming months here in the leadoff state.

“The Iowa Straw Poll is the first measurable proving ground for our Republican candidates for president,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn said.

After that, just four months remain before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.

Mitt Romney leads national polls and many states’ surveys for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama next fall. But there is no shortage of rivals looking to emerge as the top alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, who lost the GOP nomination in 2008.

The candidates with the most to lose were Minnesotans who were competing to fill the role of a Romney alternative: Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann. The pair clashed during Thursday’s debate in Ames: Bachmann said Pawlenty “sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me”; Pawlenty said his rival posts “a record of misstating and making false statements.”

Pawlenty, who has been languishing in early Iowa polls, is out to prove he’s a strong player in the GOP race with a victory, while Bachmann hopes to build on momentum she’s enjoyed since entering the race this summer.

“For some people, this is make or break,” tea party activist Ryan Rhodes said.

Nine candidates are on the ballot in voting that runs for six hours during the daylong political festival on the campus of Iowa State University that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP.

They include Romney, who won the straw poll four years ago but isn’t actively competing this time, and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who has been bypassing Iowa almost entirely in his hunt for the nomination. Neither was scheduled to be in the state; both spent Friday in New Hampshire.

Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — who made a splash Friday when she visited the state fair — aren’t on the ballot, but their supporters are waging write-in campaigns that could outpace candidates who have spent months trying to line up supporters to participate.

Others on the list, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, hope for surprise showings.

“Part of it is whether the message resonates, but the bottom line is you better be pretty well organized,” Iowa Christian Alliance head Steve Scheffler said.

On the Iowa State campus, a circus-like atmosphere was in the making, with campaigns putting up giant tents for live music and tangy barbecue to court activists. Between the entertainers, candidates had one last shot to pitch for votes.

Republicans wouldn’t speculate how many people will spend $30 each to attend the event, but turnout in past has ranged from 14,000 to 23,000.

The straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the outcome of the precinct caucuses.

In the last election, Romney won the straw poll, but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but dropped from the race soon after. John McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn’t compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.

Poor showings usually force some candidates — mostly those who are not well-known and are struggling to raise money — to abandon their bids, and that could happen this year, too.

“What it is, is a winnowing process and that might happen to Pawlenty if he doesn’t do well,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen. “It sort of serves as a filter to clean out the candidates who probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Larry Flynt on Sex, Politics, and the Real Scandals in Washington

On June 16, the same day former Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned from office, legendary Hustler publisher Larry Flynt publicly offered him a job at Flynt Management, LLC. In the letter, published on Huffington Post, Flynt emphasized the seriousness of the offer, “Just as we do not undertake insincere political crusades, we do not make insincere job offers.” So far, Weiner has not responded. When Flynt spoke to the Progressive Reader, he insinuated that “somebody probably made [Weiner] a better offer” in order to persuade him to resign “so he wouldn’t hurt his party anymore.” Nonetheless, Flynt’s offer stands – be it next month, next year, or even five years from now.

The bid to employ Weiner might have surprised many, but Flynt has taken an active (though unconventional) interest in politics and politicians for over 30 years. Flynt’s “political crusades” began in 1976 when he issued a $1 million reward in the Washington Post for documentation of “illicit sexual relations” among prominent politicians. The most successful of these snares compelled the Speaker of the House-Elect, Republican Congressman Bob Livingston, to resign in 1998 during Clinton’s impeachment hearings, for carrying on his own extramarital affair. Then, in 2007, Flynt busted Republican Senator David Vitter, a major backer of abstinence-only sex education, for using the services of a D.C. prostitution ring. All in all, according to what Flynt told Bruce Handy in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Flynt has spent at least $5 million on investigating political sex scandals over the years.

It might seem contradictory that Flynt offered Weiner employment while continuing to engage in vendettas to decommission other politicians. To Flynt, however, there is a crucial difference between Weiner and those others.  Vitter is the type of politician who dishes out one set of rules while operating under another. Flynt has no respect for this sort of hypocrisy (including anti-gay Congressman Larry Craig and homophobic preacher Ted Haggard, both of whom, it turns out, practiced gay sex). Flynt told us, “Hypocrisy is the biggest threat to democracy.” Of Weiner — who, as far as we know, took no political stance on sexting – Flynt says, “I think he’s a smart guy, had a little incident, but I think he’ll be able to handle it – I really do.”

In April, Flynt published his fourth book (his third to connect politics with sex), One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History (Palgrave MacMillan, $25), co-authored with Columbia professor and historian David Eisenbach. While its cover may raise some eyebrows (“Sex” appears in all capitals, irreverently colored in with an image of the American flag), One Nation Under Sex is a serious book that shows how the sexual lives of leaders have shaped national policy. Flynt said, “The reason why I did the book was to go back and see if the sex scandals from 200 years ago were the same as they are today.” His findings? “It’s very much true,” he said.

One Nation Under Sex not only rehashes some famous sex scandals, but reveals their lasting ramifications — both positive and negative — on U.S. history. For example, the two authors show that Benjamin Franklin’s seduction abilities played a role in gaining the French support during the Revolutionary War, and that President James Buchanan’s 32-year-old homosexual affair with southern senator William King (evidenced by their personal correspondences), influenced Buchanan’s pro-slavery stance – ultimately encouraging the secession that preceded the Civil War.

Why haven’t we heard much about these affairs before? Flynt said, “For the most part, it’s been covered up over the years…history books tend to be conservative. They only want politics, policy – they don’t want anything about sex scandals.” But history is riddled with them; Flynt observes that political sex scandals occur “about every six months.”

In their conclusion, Flynt and Eisenbach explain this bad behavior with research that says politicians are by nature risk-takers and sensation-seekers, more prone to engage in “reckless sexual behavior” than the rest of us. Flynt hopes that Americans learn to discriminate between innocuous sexual indiscretions and malicious political ones. Once we’re able to distinguish more clearly, the authors write, “We might not be able to prevent our leaders from being sexually reckless, but we can prevent their sex scandals from diverting our attention from the real problems at hand.”