Republicans across Illinois on Saturday can cast an informal vote for their favorite presidential candidate.
The straw poll includes online voting, and ballots also can be cast in-person at some locations around the state. Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady acknowledged President Barack Obama's home state isn't exactly a battleground. But he said the straw poll is a way to generate enthusiasm.
"You know, anything we can do to make Illinois more relevant in presidential politics, to get the candidates to focus on here other than raising money, I think that's a big win for the Illinois party," Brady said. "And maybe someday we can return to our greatness in 1988 when George Herbert Walker Bush actually carried the state of Illinois."
Casting a ballot in the poll is not free; it costs $5 a person. The state GOP said that will "help limit the straw poll to committed Republicans." And Brady offered a fringe benefit:
"Raise some money so we can support our candidates," he said.
Recent campaign finance reports show the Illinois Republican Party is very low on cash, but Brady said fundraising has picked up in recent weeks.
This is at least the second presidential straw poll in Illinois this fall. Last month, several hundred tea party activists picked their preferred candidate at TeaCon in Schaumburg. Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who was the only candidate to show up for the convention, won 77 percent in that poll.
This week, Cain has been struggling to get past allegations of sexual harassment made in the 1990s by at least two women who worked with him when he was head of the National Restaurant Association. Two reportedly received financial settlements.
Over the past five days, Cain has repeatedly denied wrongdoing even as he gave conflicting accounts about what — if anything — he knew about the alleged incidents as well as whether he knew about the financial settlements.
In various appearances on Friday, none of his rivals, it seemed, was eager to weigh in on Cain and the furor that has consumed the race for the GOP nomination over the past week. Five of Cain's opponents were in Iowa to court Republicans at a GOP dinner in the state that holds the race's leadoff caucuses in just two months.
None mentioned Cain by name during remarks to about a thousand of the state's most active volunteers, donors and insiders.
As the day began, Rep. Michele Bachmann, also campaigning in Iowa, told NBC's "Today" show "you won't find any surprises with me" but otherwise refused to talk publicly about the allegations against the Georgia businessman.
During her turn at the podium, the congresswoman from Minnesota ignored Cain and offered up a spirited praise of the United States.
"There is nothing like it because, you see, in this nation we value each life, each individual life," Bachmann said. "For us, you see, it is because we are made in an image and a likeness of a holy God."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry used his turn to criticize business as usual in the nation's capital.
"The future of America is too important to be left to the Washington politicians," Perry said. "Let's take our country back."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania chose to use his time before a thousand of Iowa's strongest activists to promote cultural issues that he is making central to his campaign.
"America is not just about taxes and spending. ... It's not just about the economy," Santorum said hours after delivering a campaign speech on values.
"We cannot have a strong economy without strong families and strong morals."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite of the libertarian wing of the GOP, decried Washington's spending and the nation's military actions in his remarks.
"They're not willing to admit this truth: we have spent too much," Paul said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alone made a passing reference to Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan in praising the entire GOP field's fresh thinking on taxes. He said new ideas — and Republican victories — were needed to combat high unemployment and a sour economy.
"We need a Congress, as well as the presidency, to bring America back," he said.
Ahead of that forum, Gingrich advised Cain to "slow down, take a deep breath."
But Gingrich said the tough questions and intense scrutiny comes with a presidential campaign.
"This is a very hard business — and it should be," Gingrich told CNN. "This is the presidency of the United States. If you can't get through the campaign, you sure can't govern."
Back in Washington, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivered a speech about cutting spending in an appearance before Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group aligned with the tea party. He made no mention of Cain even though he spoke just minutes before the Cain took the stage.
Neither Romney nor Cain was attending the Iowa dinner, though both are competing in the state.