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Politics And Football — That's What Iowa Does

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., poses for a photo with Iowa State University football fans before their game against the University of Iowa on Saturday.
Charlie Neibergall
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., poses for a photo with Iowa State University football fans before their game against the University of Iowa on Saturday.

Today was a big day in Iowa. And the reason had nothing to do with politics. The University of Iowa Hawkeyes drove into Ames to take on the Iowa State Cyclones in the annual CyHawk football game.

Except everything in Iowa right now has to do with politics. Four Republican presidential candidates showed up before the game — Donald Trump, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc.

They all went to tailgate parties, trying to improve their field position as the campaign ramps up.

Walker's poll numbers in the state have collapsed. It looks almost like he threw a pick-six to Donald Trump over the summer, and then fumbled on several policy positions. Now some of his fans say he's just not showing enough fight, fight, fight.

Even with his lead in the state long gone, Walker's campaign was acting confident in the last few weeks. They tried to appear strong enough in Iowa to start campaigning more in states that come deeper in the primary calendar — though that tactic could also be seen as a backup plan in case he does poorly in Iowa.

As Walker appeared at the most important place in the Hawkeye State today — playing tailgate games — his campaign reportedly cancelled upcoming events in Michigan and California. They're going to spend as much time as possible in Iowa and South Carolina, according to the Washington Post.

Trump is still playing the field. He's heading to California for a foreign policy speech on Tuesday, after a rally in Texas on Monday.

Ahead of his Iowa stop today, Trump tripped up on Twitter when he misspelled the name of ISU's Jack Trice Stadium, where today's game was played. Trump called it Jack Truce Stadium, but the tweet later disappeared.

He was better at handling the intense in-state rivalry in a pre-game rally. Trump asked the crowd who was favored (the Iowa Hawkeyes), but he kept his powder dry. "If you don't mind, I'm not gonna pick one," Trump said. "Everybody fully understands that."

(That's a different tactic than former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tried four years ago, when she was criticized by some for taking both sides instead of neither by wearing a half-Cy, half-Hawk jersey.)

Rand Paul perhaps saw the most to gain by heading to campus this weekend.

He's appealed to college students with a libertarian message — arguing against government surveillance and prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Paul would benefit if young voters showed up for him come caucus time like they did for his father in 2012. While those under age 30 made up just 15 percent of caucus-goers four years ago, nearly half of them supported Ron Paul.

But right now, younger voters who say they are likely to attend the GOP caucuses are just like older Republican voters in Iowa — they're rallying around Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Marco Rubio is also struggling to make a play in Iowa. He plays up his youth on the campaign trail, and today he was seen making the rounds with some frat members before the game.

Rubio didn't appear to go as far as the tailgate champion of the 2014 campaign, former Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Though, as the Louisiana Democrat learned in her reelection bid, tailgating hard doesn't necessarily lead to victory — in fact, it can create a backlash.

Ok – the game has kicked off now. Time to turn away from politics for just a little bit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.
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