Rich Galen
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On Wednesday the Presidential political landscape may have changed forever as the campaigns of both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain announced they would not be participating in the highly anticipated straw poll sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party this August.

The last time Iowans did their straw poll was in August 1999. I went back and found the column I wrote after that was over and had to read it twice. I had forgotten that Gary Bauer, Elizabeth Dole, Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle were in the field.

John McCain was not. He had announced he would not participate in Iowa, either in the straw poll or in the actual caucuses the next January.

The Bush campaign, I re-read, had wanted to close out the competition in August on the campus of Iowa State University by getting at least 40% of all votes cast. He missed by about 10 percentage points which gave everyone, except Bush, some bragging rights.

It also meant that Bush had to slog it out in Iowa for the next five months while McCain could concentrate on New Hampshire.

Bush's win in Iowa in January, 2000 was like his win in the straw poll: He came in first, but not by enough to claim a close-out victory.

When the campaign moved onto New Hampshire, you will remember, McCain beat Bush by double-digits and they went into South Carolina tied.

This isn't exactly the same. Both Giuliani and McCain have stated they would participate in the caucuses but not in Ames. At least that's what they're saying now.

Romney - properly - immediately announced he had scared them out of the race in Iowa which, because of the money he has available ($20 million raised in the first quarter and hundreds of millions in personal funds he can throw at the race) may be true.

The Democrats don't have the equivalent of the GOP straw poll, but a leaked memo about 10 days ago from the Clinton campaign suggested she, too, might want to scale back operations in Iowa. Clinton has consistently run behind Edwards in most (but not all) polls taken in Iowa.

The Clinton campaign denied it had any intentions of reducing its footprint in Iowa and, in fact the campaign fired its Iowa campaign manager this week and replaced her with a new person.

Nevertheless, with the new front-loaded primary calendar, Iowa might be losing its luster as a bellwether (which until this very second I thought was spelled "bellweather") in determining the ultimate nominee of the two parties.

Getting back to the GOP, however, Giuliani and McCain bailing out gives Fred Thompson a wider range of choices. With them in the straw poll he had to either jump in with both feet and try to win, or pretend he was not participating but have ample spin-staff in Ames to portray whatever happened in its best light.

Without them in the straw poll, Thompson is free to say that it has no real meaning and, so, he won't participate, either - thus taking him off the hook if, as is likely, he were to come in second to Romney or third behind someone like Huckabee.

Without any of the three of them looming over the straw poll, Mike Huckabee and the other second tier (which I always knew was not spelled "tear") candidates now have the opportunity to get some time in the spotlight.

The press corps will set the betting line on Romney and tell us what percentage of the votes they think he needs to claim success. The battle now will be for second place and the TV time which will go with it.

Keep in mind, though that the current calendar has the Iowa caucuses being held in mid-January - some five months after the straw poll.

Five months ago was January 8.

Five months ago the Democrats had been in control of the US House and Senate for four days, Joe Biden had announced he was a candidate for President, and the first round of the NFL playoffs had just begun.

See? A lot can happen in five months.

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Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at Mullings.com.