DES MOINES, Iowa — About halfway through my grilled pork chop on a stick at the State Fair, I was reminded why covering politics in Iowa is so different than anywhere else.
Where else can you watch a frontrunner get heckled while standing on a hay bale, and then detour to get a look at a cow carved entirely of butter?
Where else can you attend a fundraiser for the county Republican party in a home with its own bocce ball court and backyard pool? Right across from a farm?
Where else can you know that pretty much any voter you talk to on the street has an opinion about the presidential election—a full six months before the first primary votes are cast?
Candidates know these things about Iowa. That’s why Texas Gov. Rick Perry abandoned his Hamlet pose this week and announced that he would be traveling to New Hampshire, South Carolina—and yes, Iowa—to declare his presidential intentions.
That’s why 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has appeared less likely to run with each passing day, is bringing her bus tour to Iowa this week anyway.
And that’s why President Obama will hop on his own bus and do the same thing next week.
Fried Twinkies may not be your thing. (I tried one. They shouldn’t be.) But engaged voters are catnip to a candidate with ambitions.
The ambition is on unusually naked display here in Iowa this week. The atmospheric of having all eight candidates on a single debate stage, with the looming offstage threat of an imminent Rick Perry candidacy, provided the kind of drama that has so far been lacking.
What most, still unengaged, voters probably need is a guide to the Iowa campaign.
The Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich provides this one.
And if you're wondering what was and what was not true in Thursday's debate, check this out in The New York Times.
But if you want to know what the campaigns sought to take away from the evening, read what Michele Bachmann had to say the next morning. "When others ran, I fought," she said, quoting herself in a fundraising e-mail that arrived in in-boxes Friday morning.
But a State Fair-bound Gov. Tim Pawlenty, dressed in denim shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots at a Politico breakfast that morning, was happy to reprise his critique against his fellow Minnesotan, saying it's not enough just to lead because voters "will expect you to have led something and driven it to result."
It feels like there are a dozen different directions to look during a week like this. The wild stock-market gyrations rattled nerves on Wall Street in much the same way that Perry's decision to run rattled nerves in Iowa.
Add to that the evident frustrations of the candidates who are having the most trouble getting out of the gate. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and business executive Herman Cain all chafed openly for attention during the debate.
Their problem may be that Republicans who have been keeping track of the president's dipping approval ratings smell opportunity in a way they did not even six months ago.
"Right now, a generic Republican can almost beat Barack Obama," Doug Gross, a former Iowa GOP official who still has not decided whom to support, told me. "It's a hard election, his numbers are upside down. He’s obviously had a very tough week. But we obviously have a year and a half to go. So I think anything can happen, but right now it doesn't look good for him. So it’s critically important that Republicans pick the right candidate who has the ability to win."