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As Straw Poll Hangs in the Balance, Cruz and Perry Noncommittal

The two White House hopefuls from Texas are keeping their options when it comes to the Iowa Straw Poll. Iowa Republican leaders are scrambling to keep the event alive.

Former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Ted Cruz in Beaumont.  

DES MOINES, Iowa — Put them down as maybes.

As Hawkeye State Republicans scramble to keep the Iowa Straw Poll relevant, the two White House hopefuls from Texas are keeping their options open — at least publicly.

The straw poll is three months away, but it was front and center Saturday evening at the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Dinner, where party leaders stressed how vital it is to the state's outsize influence in the nominating process. And the straw poll buzz continued into the week as Iowa GOP officials beat back claims the county fair-like event is fading into history. 

Asked Monday whether he plans to participate in the poll, former Gov. Rick Perry reminded reporters he is not yet an official candidate. He is expected to launch his second bid for the White House on June 4 in Dallas.  

"There’s plenty of time after that to make a decision about the straw poll," Perry said after a stop in northwest Iowa, where he also reflected on his shotgun entrance into the 2012 race, when he skipped the event to declare his candidacy the same day in South Carolina. Among the lessons he learned then about campaigning in Iowa: "Show up before the straw poll."

Last month, when asked by The New York Times whether he would participate in the poll, Cruz said yes. On Tuesday, though, he declined to say whether he would compete.

“A number of candidates and a number of campaigns are making decisions on the straw poll right now and we’re certainly making those decisions at the same time," Cruz told reporters in Beaumont.

Asked Sunday about the poll, a Cruz aide was similarly noncommittal. Cruz's campaign "will continue to make announcements on our own timeline," spokesman Rick Tyler said. Cruz's team has previously said he has not "made a commitment yet."

The straw poll counts as a major fundraiser for the state party, which under chairman Jeff Kaufmann has not been shy about reminding 2016 hopefuls why Iowa matters. Participating candidates usually rent out space to entertain activists and make brief speeches before the poll is taken. 

The event has drawn criticism over the years that it is too costly to participate in and can elevate a long shot — or drag down a front-runner. The Iowa GOP has made changes to the event this year to address the perennial gripes, yet few candidates have publicly committed to the poll, and just last week, word got out that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be skipping it. 

In an interview Monday, Iowa GOP co-chairman Cody Hoefert said some candidates have already told the state party they plan to participate in the poll but want to announce it on their own timeline. For apparent holdouts like Cruz and Perry, Hoefert added, the pitch is simple: With 30,000 to 40,000 Iowans expected to attend, the event gives the two Texans the opportunity to address 20 percent of the caucus electorate in one day.

"We think that's an appeal to candidates that there won't be anywhere else," Hoefert said. "We fully expect several of them to attend. We don’t expect all of them will attend."

"We hope they take Iowa serious," he added. "We hope they take meeting with our grassroots and our activists serious, and we anticipate that they will."

The Saturday dinner served as a prelude to the poll, with Iowa GOP leaders making a full-court press to remind attendees of the event's importance. Hoefert and Kaufmann hand-delivered personal invitations to the White House hopefuls or their teams. Perry was one of 11 declared and likely candidates who spoke at the dinner, while Cruz missed it for his daughter's piano recital. 

"You and I want the ticket sale to succeed. We want the straw poll to be a big event," Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said as the dinner began. "It funds our voter turnout, which is what really counts if we’re going to succeed in 2016."

Before Grassley spoke, Kaufmann introduced a video that exalted the state's clout in the primary calendar — and the straw poll's role in that. 

"What happens here in Iowa can change the world, and it can all happen in a moment," a narrator said. "What is Iowa? We’re first in the nation, and this year it starts in Boone."

Perry passed on the poll in 2011, instead traveling that day to the Palmetto State to make his campaign official at RedState Gathering, a convention of conservative bloggers. Perry nonetheless placed sixth in that year's poll thanks to a write-in campaign waged by pro-Perry organizers. 

This year's straw poll, which takes place Aug. 8 in Boone, will again compete for national attention with RedState Gathering. Both Cruz and Perry have RSVP'd for the RedState event from Aug. 6-9 in Atlanta.

RedState Editor-in-Chief Erick Erickson told the Tribune on Monday it looks like the two Texans will address the gathering Aug. 7. That means they could still peel away for the straw poll the next day — if they choose to.

Reporter Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report. 

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