Of all the preseason games in the run-up to the GOP nomination, none is more crucial than the Iowa Straw Poll.
As usual, it will be held in Ames, on Saturday, Aug. 11 Analysts have downgraded its importance since McCain and Rudy dropped out. They are mistaken. The McCain-Giuliani forfeiture of the straw poll already testifies to its importance -- and to their weaknesses.
Rudy dropped out first. Why? His front-runner image would have been shattered had he been routed at Ames. Rather than risk a beating, Rudy quit. By dropping out, he concedes that, today, he lacks the troops or organization to contest the caucuses in January. And if he doesn't have them now, when and where does he find them?
Within hours of Rudy's forfeit, McCain threw in his hand.
With Rudy gone, McCain was not going to be able to beat the mayor, and he faced defeat by Gov. Romney, the Iowa front-runner, and even possible defeat by a second-tier candidate. Since McCain dropped out, the weakness of his candidacy has been exposed, and Giuliani, still the front-runner, has been slowly sinking in national polls.
With Rudy and McCain out, the pressure is on Romney, who must win. But significance now attaches to who runs second in the straw poll. For this is the last, best chance a second-tier candidate -- Govs. Mike Huckabee and Tommy Thompson, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Reps. Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul -- has to show broad support.
It has been fairly said there are only three tickets out of Iowa: first-class, coach and Greyhound. Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia, who had no organization in Iowa, has quit the race. The candidates who do not show strength at Ames will likely be packing it in, awaiting only their matching funds in January to pay off campaign debts. Only Ron Paul among the six has more than a million dollars in cash on hand.
The contest for No. 2 in the straw poll is thus the one to watch.
About Gov. Romney. His strategy has been set by his situation. A Massachusetts governor who had taken liberal stands on abortion, gay rights and guns, he needs to persuade the nominating wing of the party, first, that he is a conservative, second, that he is a winner. As a twice-defeated Richard Nixon said in 1968, the only way to prove he is not a loser is to go "into the fires of the primaries."
Romney has to win neighboring New Hampshire to have a chance in South Carolina -- and to win New Hampshire, he must win Iowa. Hence, Romney has used up much of his early cash to secure both bastions. His success may be seen in the fact that he has run Rudy and McCain out of the straw poll, and is polling first in both states.