The withdrawal of Rudy and McCain not only dims their luster, it puts pressure on Romney to run up the score on Aug. 11 and show intimidating strength. And it presents an opening for a second-tier candidate -- former Govs. Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore, Reps. Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, and Sen. Sam Brownback -- to break out of the pack.
Whoever now runs second to Romney in the straw poll -- especially if he can put distance between himself and No. 3 -- will begin to attract attention from the media and see his contributions increase.
The McCain-Giuliani cop-out will cause Fred Thompson to review his strategy. Wisely, he has passed up the straw poll. This would have cost him hundreds of thousands of campaign cash for a tent, tickets, food and buses at the all-day affair in Ames, and availed him nothing. For his late entry would have precluded a first- or second-place finish.
Thompson now has to ask himself whether he should even go to Iowa -- or do as McCain did in 2000, skip the state and take his stand in New Hampshire.
Writing off Iowa makes sense for Thompson. For it is hard to see how he could make up for the lost six months he has already ceded to the other candidates in organizing the state. Most Iowa political activists have already committed to other candidates.
The same would hold true for Newt Gingrich, should he decide to run, which appears unlikely now that Fred Thompson has moved into the vacuum left by conservative dissatisfaction with the front-runners. But should Newt get in, it would make no sense for him to go to Iowa and play against a deck that seems stacked for Romney. Better to wait for New Hampshire.
Neither the Iowa straw poll nor the caucuses are necessarily decisive. Sen. Phil Gramm won the straw poll in 1996. George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the caucuses of 1980.
But the Iowa Caucuses have always been important, and often crucial.
Jimmy Carter's victory led to the nomination in 1976. Kerry's victory led to the nomination. George W. Bush's smashing victory in the Iowa straw poll of 1999 and follow-on triumph in the caucuses propelled him through defeat in New Hampshire to the White House.
Mitt Romney has been robbed of a triumph over his two main rivals on Aug. 11. They evaded the trap he had set. But in running Rudy and John out of Ames, Romney has shown real strength, and must now be the favorite to take Iowa in January and probably is the man to beat in New Hampshire.