DES MOINES, Iowa—"Can you do me a favor?" asks Tom Deregger. "Do you know what the schedule is after this is done?"
"This" is an address from Herman Cain, the first in a series of Friday speeches from GOP candidates at the Iowa State Fair. Deregger and Rick Titus, self-employed friends from northern Iowa, had been enjoying it, which everyone present could tell, because they had the biggest voices in a sleepy midmorning crowd. When Cain said his father earned money the old-fashioned way—"he worked for it!"—Titus let loose with a massive "Yeeeeeee-haw!" Cain said he knew how Washington worked. "It doesn't!" Deregger howled with approval.
I wrote down the schedule of the next few speakers. Thaddeus McCotter at 11, Rick Santorum at 11:30, Ron Paul at noon, Newt Gingrich at 2:30, Michele Bachmann at 4. Deregger eyed it with a look that was half-disinterest and half-confusion—"who is Magutter?"—before he saw Ron Paul's name.
"That's who I'm voting for," he tells me. "Cain was saying the right stuff up there, but Paul's my guy."
"The rest of these guys are just status quo," says Titus. "Paul's the only one who's talking about the bankers and the Fed." He pulls out a dollar bill and points to the words Federal Reserve Note.
"It's not a note!" he says. "Do you see an expiration date on there?"
Titus and Deregger exemplify one of the three breeds of Iowa Republican voters. They're die-hards, with unchangeable opinions about the candidate they landed on months or years ago. They have fears; no one else speaks to them. They'll wait for the caucuses, show up, go home. At this moment in Iowa, the only sure-thing voters are the people voting for Ron Paul, which is one reason Republicans keep predicting that he'll win Saturday's straw poll. (The other reason is that they want it to be news if someone else wins.)
The two other breeds are the undecideds and the settlers. There's some overlap between them. Many of the undecideds say that they haven't heard from, or of, all the candidates yet. They have trouble naming them. They double-check with reporters to see who is running.
What about the Iowans who are already settling for a candidate? They like one or two of their current choices, but they're not sold on them yet. They want to hear more about Rick Perry, about whom they know almost nothing, or they want some kind of decision from Sarah Palin, about whom they know everything.
"I want to know more about Perry," says Frank Dailey, who ponders the question alongside his wife, Linda. Both are wearing shirts with American flag colors and the slogan You Are Not ENTITLED to What I Earn. "Everything I've heard about his record in Texas is very good."
But what about Perry's decision to jump into the race as the Ames Straw Poll is happening? Isn't that an insult to Iowa voters?
"I think that's something you guys in the media care about," he says.
Iowans always engage in some fantasizing before they drive themselves over to the caucuses. There were polls well into 2003 showing that Al Gore or Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination. (A lot of good that did her in 2008.) Republicans hated having to choose between McCain, Romney, and Huckabee in 2007, and for a brief, delirious moment, 27 percent of them said they wanted Fred Thompson to jump into the race and save them. He jumped into the race. He didn't save them.
The backers of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty like to remember all that. Their support is soft, sure. But candidates flop all the time. Celebrities take passes at running all the time. This is a problem they can endure; they will eventually start grabbing the votes of those settlers.
As the Daileys walk away, Cain is long gone. The barely known McCotter ascends the stage and takes his place behind its immaculately arranged hay bales. A small number of fair-goers get to hear his monotone warnings about how America could follow Europe's lead into collapse. A man named Ronald Van Genderen rested his hands on his folding chair and explained to McCotter that he wanted a candidate who came from the middle class. It sounded like the candidate had made a sale. Nope.
"I want Palin in there," says Van Genderen. "If she ran, she would win."
What about the polling that suggests she couldn't?
"Why?" he snorts. "Because people can't corner her. She's too honest. She's too Christian. Her personality is terrific. That's why they don't like her. What did the media do, go after 1,500 pages of her emails? Why did they do that? They're out to get her."
Santorum is next onstage, making the electability argument that Van Genderen didn't buy. "There was a poll last week that had Barack Obama and Rick Santorum in a dead heat in Pennsylvania," he says. "I was the only conservative elected in 2000 in a state that George W. Bush lost. What does the national media have against a conservative who can win?"
At the moment, the national media isn't paying attention to him because Sarah Palin has arrived at the state fair. She's far away from the speakers, over at the Hall of Champions, where an array of prize-winning animals is overwhelmed by reporters scurrying to get a look at Palin and toss questions at her. Most of the GOP field is 10 minutes away, and no one cares, because she's here.
"After she resigned, you said that she was washed-up and done, right?" Todd Palin tells CNN. "And you guys are still here."
The media are going where the voters are. The fair-goers who can figure out Palin's location come away literally yelping with delight holding newly signed fair programs. Middle-aged women on scooters hoist their smartphones to snap photos. One young girl, who happened to bring George W. Bush's memoirs to the fair, angles over to get Palin to sign them. Julie Streblow bounds away from the Palin mob with a fresh signature, gushing about the encounter.
"I told her I loved her TV show, and I wanted her in the White House!" says Streblow. "Now that I've seen here, I really want her to be president."
"It really makes a difference when you shake someone's hand," suggests her friend Deb Waterman.
Palin slowly, slowly moves out of that scrum, into a VIP section of the fair and out of sight. Later, when she and Todd and her security team walk the main street of the fair, the crowd is at least eight people deep. The Palin mob shuffles down the street like a drunken, sluggish beast, microphones and cameras sticking out at random angles as the crowd swells. Right at the other end of the street, Michele Bachmann is arriving—late—for her own speech. Here's somebody who has die-hard support like Ron Paul, who can win the votes of people who will eventually settle for someone who's not Palin.
"Meet me in Ames!" says Bachmann. "We're going to have country superstar Randy Travis!"
A woman in a tie-dyed shirt cuts through the crowd, sees the stage, and wants to say something inspiring.
"You go, Sarah!"