Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson each thus face a major dilemma and crucial decision. Given their pathetic showings at the straw poll, where their names were on the ballot but they did not speak, if they contest Iowa, they will have to spend time, energy and money even to be competitive. And they would risk a third- or fourth-place finish. But if they skip Iowa, they could face a media blackout for the 10 days between Christmas and the caucuses, while Romney and the rest in Iowa are all over the national news.
If all three wait in New Hampshire, all three could be in the dark until the news from Des Moines rolls over the country and propels the winner of the caucuses to the forefront in New Hampshire.
Moreover, South Carolina, by tightening the schedule and pushing Iowa and New Hampshire closer to New Year's Day, and crowding them closer together, increases the momentum value of an Iowa victory.
Perhaps the best hope McCain, Thompson and Giuliani have of stopping Romney is to have Huckabee or Brownback defeat him in Iowa. And the surest way to do that would be for Brownback or Huckabee to drop out and stop splitting the social conservative vote.
But given the strong performance of both, that appears unlikely.
Bottom line: The front-runners, Thompson and Giuliani, and McCain have left their destiny in other hands. If none of them is going to contest Iowa, and try to take Romney down there, all have a vital interest in helping Huckabee or Brownback tarnish a Romney victory with a strong finish, or defeat him in Iowa, which might finish him. For today it does not look like any of the three -- Thompson, Giuliani or McCain, who ran seventh, eighth and 10th -- can do it themselves.
For the front-runners, this would be the best of all possible worlds. For even if Brownback or Huckabee emerged with the moral victory in Iowa, neither has the resources for a national campaign, though the checks would pour in, in the event of an Iowa victory.
All of which raises an interesting question.
Did Romney hold down the score at Ames to make the race more exciting, to give a victory there in January greater drama, perhaps to lure Giuliani or Thompson or McCain or Newt Gingrich back into the state, where in that country of the Sioux, he could scalp them all?
The Republican race has suddenly gotten more interesting. The Iowa Straw Poll has a way of doing that.