There's no doubt the straw poll can be a circus. But it's the first glimpse the public gets of how the campaigns are actually doing. "What it really helps the candidates do is test the organizations ahead of time to find out what their levels of support are, where their deficiencies are," says Strawn, "and I think any campaign manager or candidate would love to know in August 2011 where those weaknesses are, instead of caucus night 2012."
It's still not clear which GOP candidates will go all-out in Iowa. Tim Pawlenty certainly will, and Newt Gingrich has been in the state a lot. So has Herman Cain, who is attracting a lot of attention in Iowa as well as the rest of the Republican world. Michele Bachmann will announce her candidacy there. But Mitt Romney, currently a not-terribly-strong frontrunner, is a question mark. His handlers say he'll campaign hard in Iowa, but he has only been to the state once this year.
As for the noncandidate currently attracting the most attention in GOP land -- that would be Sarah Palin -- Strawn says he has seen no signs of a Palin organization. "All we have seen to date is a couple of rank-and-file activists who are traveling the state seemingly independent of Gov. Palin, organizing in case she runs. Beyond that, we haven't seen anything here on the ground." If Palin does choose to run, Strawn says, "She will have to do ... retail campaigning and really give Republicans a chance to ask her those tough questions. We'll see how she responds."
Palin and some Republican strategists believe it will be possible for a candidate to enter the race as late as fall and still win. "The field isn't set yet, not by a long shot," she told reporters recently. Strawn points to the heavy organizing job -- 1,800 precincts -- that confronts any Iowa candidate. Getting in late will be a big job. That's just part of the test that Iowa poses -- like it or not.