By Ben Kamisar - 08/15/15 06:00 AM EDT
Iowa is about to get a staggering dose of 2016 star power as Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonThe Trillary dilemma Juanita Broaddrick to Chelsea Clinton: 'Your parents are not nice people' The political divide meets the office MORE, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Trillary dilemma The political divide meets the office Poll: Clinton opens up 6-point lead over Trump MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWATCH LIVE: Hillary Clinton campaigns with Bernie Sanders The Hill's 12:30 Report Warren to rally Wisconsin college students for Feingold MORE all descend on the Iowa State Fair Saturday.
Trump, the GOP front-runner who took Iowa’s top spot in the polls this week, will arrive in a helicopter and will be surrounded by a media circus.
And Clinton, the only Democrat not scheduled to participate in the 10-day-long Soapbox event, where most of the 2016 candidates will speak, is expected to head to the fair with former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a popular figure in the state who endorsed Clinton on Friday.
The three are well known for their ability to draw crowds, but Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater said that his team is ready.
“Iowans are proud to be Iowans and they are proud of their Iowa State Fair. They love the national attention that comes with that to put us on the map for what I call is the American classic state fair,” he said, noting up to one million people in a state of three million come to the fair each year.
“Our people love having the candidates here.”
Indeed, 19 Republican and Democratic candidates are scheduled to speak at the fair, which runs through Aug. 22.
Slater added that the large fairgrounds and staff are ready to handle the potential for even more visitors drawn in by the packed Saturday schedule. A typical weekend day draws more than 100,000 people when the weather forecast is clear, as it is for Saturday.
Trump will touch down in Des Moines in his private helicopter, the latest grand gesture by the real estate magnate, who has been climbing the polls across the nation and in the Hawkeye State. Two new polls from Suffolk University and CNN/ORC have him at the top of the crowded GOP field in Iowa, knocking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker out of the top spot.
Chuck Laudner, Trump’s Iowa strategist, told The Hill the plan is to hold a press conference after the chopper lands to quell the media frenzy and then let Trump walk around the fairgrounds.
“He’s not doing any stand-alone events, he’ll just be at the fair wading into the crowds. He wants to be with people and we are in no hurry,” he said, noting that staff will stay for the remaining eight days of the fair to meet with potential supporters.
“This is exactly what fairgoers want, to meet Donald Trump. That is what they’ll get.”
But they won’t get to see him on the Soapbox stage, where candidates generally give shortened stump speeches, often followed by question and answer periods. The Des Moines Register runs that event, and Trump is feuding with the paper after it published an editorial telling him to drop out.
“The Des Moines Register doesn’t even think he should be a candidate, why should he step on their stage,” Laudner said.
Matt Strawn, a former Iowa GOP chairman, said it’s an “open question” how successful Trump’s Iowa ground operations will be. In his mind, Strawn said, the Trump team will have to work hard to make sure those who pick him in a poll in August show up for the caucus in February.
“Will Mr. Trump have a robust enough organization to turn political voyeurs showing up at events into actual caucus attendees?” he asked. “Maybe he can; it’s something we are all learning together.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sanders pulls into Iowa still a heavy underdog. But while the latest CNN/ORC poll shows Sanders behind by 19 points, he’s made strong strides since polls from April and May, when he trailed Clinton by more than 40 points.
It’s unclear how many fans Sanders will attract. He’s fresh off of a West Coast swing where crowds of more than 20,000 came to hear him speak. The campaign said Friday that it moved his Sunday town hall in Dubuque, Iowa, to a larger facility with “turnout projections mounting.”
Slater, the fair CEO, said the Soapbox area will be large enough for any crowd that Sanders brings, noting that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) large Friday audience could still hear him thanks to the strong sound system.
Clinton is no stranger to big crowds, either. While her campaign has relied more on small-scale events meant to foster more personal interactions, she still has legions of supporters as the front-runner and establishment favorite.
Clinton joins Trump and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as the only major candidates not to speak at the Soapbox event. But a campaign aide told The Hill that she would attend the fair with Harkin, the recently retired Iowa senator, who could also be an additional draw for attendees.
The former secretary of State has made Iowa a centerpiece of her campaign, after she came in third place back in the 2008 caucuses. She spoke at Harkin’s popular Steak Fry event last fall and has returned a handful of times for town halls and other events aimed at retail politics in the state.
But despite the media circus that’s likely to follow the three candidates around the fair, questions remain over how much of an impact the appearances will have on the caucuses.
State Sen. Michael Gronstal, the state Senate’s Democratic majority leader, said that while the event is a “great celebration,” it’s only a small piece of what’s needed to come away the victor come February.
“What works in the caucuses in Iowa is standing in people’s living rooms and taking tough questions,” he said.
“The fair atmosphere is a little bit fun and gives some people the sense of the character of Iowa but doesn’t get to Iowans where they live.”