The Republican presidential hopefuls plunged with wide smiles and barbeque aprons into the melee of the Iowa State Fair yesterday hours after squaring off in a tumultuous televised debate that at times was more undignified playground brawl than polite policy discourse.
Who was hurt the worst may become clear today, when Republican voters from all corners of the state are bussed by the candidates to Ames, Iowa, which also hosted the debate, for the first straw poll on which they favour for the party nomination. While the atmosphere will be carnival-like and the results non-binding, the poll traditionally begins the process of separating the weak from the strong.
In a sideshow that was anticipated almost as much as the debate and the poll, Sarah Palin, the No 2 on the ticket in 2008, swept into the state fairgrounds last night aboard her "One Nation" bus for a live interview from the grounds for Fox News, thus re-igniting speculation she may yet decide to run.
In a telling illustration of how far to the fiscal right the Republican field is sticking, every one of the candidates at the debate raised their hands when asked by a moderator if they would reject out-of-hand a deficit-reduction deal in Congress if it included even a minimal effort to raise taxes.
His front-runner status in national polls intact, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, stood mostly aloof, fending off attacks from Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, who said Mr Romney was too like President Barack Obama to be a credible challenger. Mr Pawlenty claimed Mr Obama had modelled his healthcare overhaul on a plan imposed by Mr Romney in his state. Mr Pawlenty has struggled to make an impact and used the debate to present a more forceful face, also unleashing spiteful attacks against his fellow Minnesotan and the Tea Party standard bearer, Michele Bachmann. "The fact of the matter is, in Congress, her record of accomplishments and results in non-existent," he said of the Congresswoman.
It remains to be seen whether ditching his nice-guy image will work, not least because Ms Bachmann is performing well in Iowa and is a possible winner of today's straw poll. Also favoured in the poll is Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman, who will spare no effort to bring supporters en masse.
Bob Schuman, director of Americans for Rick Perry, said Mr Perry had begun thinking seriously about joining the race when three powerful candidates – Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee – decided not to.