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Huckabee is latest straw poll no-show. Is event in jeopardy?

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The people running Iowa’s Republican presidential straw poll want less money and glitz involved as they try to take this summer’s event back to basics. But now they are facing a different kind of downsizing — fewer candidates.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the latest 2016 prospect to opt out of the Iowa tradition, announcing Thursday that he won’t participate in this year’s poll. Eight years ago he placed second.

In an opinion piece published Thursday in The Des Moines Register, Huckabee said the straw poll is likely to draw only the more conservative candidates and the competition could weaken them.

“Past winners in recent straw polls didn’t result in caucus victories, and we want to dedicate our resources and focus our volunteers in Iowa towards the caucuses, which matter greatly in determining our next president,” wrote Huckabee, who won Iowa’s leadoff caucuses in 2008 and recently declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

His announcement was the latest bad news for the carnival-like summer event that draws thousands of party activists. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also plans to skip the poll. He’s going to a conservative gathering in Georgia instead.

State GOP officials have fought to keep the Aug. 8 event alive after criticism that it has ballooned into a costly sideshow. Presidential hopefuls attending the party’s recent Lincoln Dinner received an aggressive straw poll pitch.

So far, few have committed.

Of the declared candidates, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former business executive Carly Fiorina are not saying whether they will attend. Alex Conant, speaking for Marco Rubio, said the Florida senator’s schedule is not set for August, but he would not be spending money on straw polls.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson plans to participate, said spokesman Doug Watts.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has invested heavily in Iowa, said recently that he will not decide until he determines whether he will run for the nomination.

Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross said it’s “pretty clear” most candidates would avoid the poll if they could, but some need the lift it can give them.

Held since 1979, the Republican straw poll is considered an early but not always reliable test of strength in presidential campaigns. It’s grown from a county fundraiser to a major event where candidates spend heavily to bus in and entertain supporters. In 2011, country singer Randy Travis performed in a tent for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

In 2011, about 17,000 people turned out for the poll, far fewer than the roughly 120,000 who voted in the January 2012 caucuses. Bachmann spent $2 million for the straw poll and won, while eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not participate.

Party leaders recently said candidates will no longer have to bid up to $35,000 for space to pitch tents at the event. The state party will also arrange for food vendors and electrical power will be provided.

“We expect robust participation,” said Charlie Szold, Republican Party of Iowa spokesman. “A lot of people right now are running to this extreme and trying to write the eulogy for this event.”

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