Usually politicians don't want to be associated with pork. But at the Iowa State Fair, US presidential candidates hope that hanging around hogs will help them bring home the bacon when the time comes for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus in January. Presidential hopeful Mitt Rommey, campaigning Friday ahead of the weekend's preliminary Republican straw poll in nearby Ames, started out his day at the fair by flipping chops at the Iowa Pork Producers Tent to feed picnic tables full of lunchers. From there, the former Massachusetts governor stopped by the animal learning center to shake hands with sunburned supporters while piglets suckled in nearby pens. "We've got pork barrel politics, but we've also got real pork politics," said Wade Parsons, a Des Moines TV news producer manning a booth at the fair, who explained that raising - and eating - swine is one of the main preoccupations of a state heavily reliant on agriculture. More from the campaign trail:
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That makes the state fair - where heifers compete in beauty contests, top-of-the-line tractors are eyed like Lamborghinis and everything, from Snickers bars to pork chops, can be fried and put on a stick - a prime location for candidates to appeal to the one million annual visitors through their stomachs.
The approach certainly impressed Bob Breeden, one of the diners at the pork tent where Romney was a celebrity chef.
"I think he's doing a good job," said the white-haired Iowa native, whose business card explains that his company sells bale processors, mower conditioners and other hay accessories. "It's a plus for him to come here. If you're going to know anyone, you have to come to stuff like he's doing here."
Most Iowans might appreciate the gesture - and have come to expect individualized attention from candidates seeking to win over the two million voters of this rural Middle West state, as its parties choose presidential candidates the week before New Hampshire primary voters do - but it's less to the taste of the few thousand local Jews.
But, according to Mark Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation, they accept that their diet will differ from that of their neighbors.
Finkelstein, who plans to take his family to the fair several times during its run, limits himself to ice cream and the occasional slice of pizza, skipping even the fried Twinkies - though that might be for reasons other than their possible exposure to lard.
Finkelstein finds ways other than cuisine to immerse himself in the fair experience, namely through klezmer music, which he and his band, the Java Jews, perform for the crowd. Though the audience can be surprised by the unfamiliar music, even though he described it as "American-style klezmer" performed with a slight country twang, they seem to like it.
"There's limited gastronomic fare to be had at the fair, and that's why we wanted to appear at the fair as a Jewish band," he said. "It's an opportunity to share some of the Jewish community's culture with the culture of Iowa as a whole."
Ben Sales has found that those two cultures can be very, very different.
"It goes way beyond the pigs. The pigs are only a small part of it," said the kippa-wearing 21-year-old, originally from the suburbs of Chicago. "This is a culture I am not familiar with."
A student who came to Iowa to engage in political activism over the summer because of its importance in the presidential campaign, Sales stands out as a visible Jew in a place not known for its diversity.
That has lead some presidential candidates, upon seeing him, to add lines about their support for Israel to their comments. While it can rankle Sales, since Israel isn't the only issue that's important to him, he also appreciates that campaigning is largely about reaching out to groups based on their interests, whether it's foreign policy or pork.
On the swine he is more sanguine, taking an eat-and-let-eat approach.
"I don't care," he said. "I don't eat pork, but they can."