If Romney wins big at Ames, he will be heavily favored in the January caucuses. If he wins in January, he will have the "Big Mo" going into New Hampshire. A victory in Iowa is worth $50 million in free publicity eight days before New Hampshire, and a win in New Hampshire is worth even more heading for South Carolina and Florida.
The question that faces Rudi and McCain is this: Do they risk a defeat by Romney in Iowa, perhaps a humiliating third-place finish that dims their luster in New Hampshire? Or do they cede Iowa to Romney, write it off and wait for him in New Hampshire, as McCain waited for George W. Bush in 2000 and beat him?
Both McCain, who has less cash on hand than Ron Paul, and Rudy were back in Iowa last week. This suggests they are keeping their options open and have yet to decide to abandon Iowa altogether.
This is a difficult decision for both. How do they rally their troops, after having let them down by ducking the fight in Ames?
Up to now, Rudy seemed to have decided not to bet heavily on Iowa or New Hampshire, but save his chips -- he is the best-funded man in the race -- for Florida and Feb. 5, when New York, California and 18 states hold primaries. The problem with a wait-and-see strategy is that Romney may have unstoppable momentum, if he wins the first two big ones.
Fred Thompson, too, has a decision to make. Does he try belatedly to organize Iowa when Romney has had a year's head start and half a dozen other candidates have locked up the party activists? Or does he wait in New Hampshire to meet Romney head-on?
Thompson, who has put off any announcement before Labor Day, seems to have taken a pass on the straw poll, and his late entry in the national race gives him a compelling reason not to compete in Iowa. But that would mean that he, McCain and Rudy might all three be spectators on Jan. 14, when the caucuses are held and Romney collects a week's worth of favorable publicity before the three meet him in New Hampshire on Jan. 22.
Thus, the Iowa Straw Poll at Ames has already played a major role in the politics of 2008, even before it has been held.