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.
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.