Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican Jeb Bush won’t be at the Iowa Republican Party’s presidential straw poll this summer, skipping the fixture of the pre-election-year political calendar for a competing event in Georgia.

Bush spokesman Tim Miller says Bush will attend the RedState Gathering instead. The annual four-day forum featuring conservative figures runs Aug. 6-9 in Atlanta. The straw poll is a one-day affair, scheduled for Aug. 8.

Bush is the latest in a string of big-name Republicans over the past three campaigns to sit out the Iowa event. The Iowa state GOP has fought to keep the straw poll alive and relevant in the face of complaints from critics who say it rewards candidates who pay for their supporters’ tickets to the event and unfairly gives Iowa two early tests of presidential strength. Iowa is also scheduled to begin the presidential voting in February.

“We hope Gov. Bush rethinks his decision and realizes that grassroots will only grow in Iowa if he waters them,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann posted on Twitter on Tuesday.

The straw poll is attended by a small fraction of Iowa’s roughly 600,000 active registered Republicans. Mitt Romney skipped the straw poll in 2011, but he finished a strong second in the caucuses on his way to the GOP nomination. Michele Bachmann won that straw poll but performed poorly in the caucuses and quit the race.

Miller gave no explanation for Bush’s decision to go to Georgia instead.

Doug Gross, a Bush supporter and former GOP nominee for governor, said the straw poll has become a vehicle for Christian conservatives to vet candidates, “a segment of the party that he doesn’t inhabit.”

The straw poll grew from a small party fundraiser in 1980 to an increasingly costly affair, where the Iowa GOP auctioned prime real estate for campaigns to pitch huge air-conditioned tents to woo supporters with food and entertainment. Campaigns rented motor coaches to bus their supporters to and from the event, long held on Iowa State University’s campus in Ames.

But this year party leaders sought to scale back the event by moving it to a more pastoral setting in nearby Boone, and eliminated the cost of renting space.

In 2007, Arizona Sen. John McCain opted not to participate in the straw poll and went on to compete sparingly in the caucuses. But he won the New Hampshire primary and the 2008 GOP nomination.

Bush is expected to declare his candidacy this summer.

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