Iowa GOP straw poll: what to watch

Eyes will be on the showing for Romney, the only top-tier candidate in Saturday's contest, analysts say.

This weekend's Iowa GOP straw poll was supposed to provide the first clue as to who might go the distance and win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. That won't happen. Among the top-tier candidates, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is competing.

But the straw poll, a nonbinding vote taking place Saturday among attendees at a state party fundraiser in Ames, Iowa, will nevertheless advance the story of the long and laborious climb to the Republican nomination. Here are the three points to watch for, analysts say: How does Governor Romney do? Does anyone emerge as the clear alternative to Romney among religious conservatives? And does the field shrink?

Point one, on Romney: His campaign has poured major resources into the event, organizing rides from all over the state, paying admission fees for attendees, and serving food at the event. When other top candidates announced they would not participate, the Romney campaign pulled back on its effort (though officials will not reveal specifics) and attempted to lower expectations, but is still banking on a big win.

"If he doesn't win big, that will be a surprise," says independent pollster Dick Bennett, who polls frequently in Iowa. "If he does win big, people will say, 'Yes, he's real.' But in a crowded field, I don't know what big is."

Romney has been leading in Iowa polls for months, typically scoring in the high 20s. If he scores less than that in the straw poll, that could be a sign of trouble; Iowa will hold the first nominating contest in the country – the precinct caucuses – perhaps as early as this December. But polling of likely caucusgoers is not necessarily a good gauge of how the straw poll might go, since the other top-tier candidates are not competing in Ames.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona are still campaigning in Iowa and say they have not lowered their commitment to winning in the caucuses. They "dropped out" of Ames months ago, when it looked as if they could not match Romney organizationally. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee also polls reasonably well in Iowa, but is not expected to announce his campaign in September and is in no shape to compete with Romney in Ames.

Romney alternative?

Point two, on the also-rans: Specifically, the question is "who might emerge as an alternative to Romney among conservative evangelical Christian Republicans," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "They are major players here, more so than in New Hampshire [home of the nation's first primary]. If Romney does reasonably well among them here, he might try to leverage that among Evangelicals in South Carolina."

South Carolina holds the second primary, and among Republicans, Christian conservatives play a large role. Among the Republicans competing in Ames, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas are making the strongest pitch for that constituency, but have yet to gain much traction in polls or in fundraising. Still, reservations about Romney's Mormon faith and recent conversion to his antiabortion stand have left religious conservatives still unsettled on an obvious alternative.

If another candidate comes in a close second to Romney in Ames, that could be the big story on Saturday, says Mr. Goldford.

Another wild card on the religious right is Senator Thompson. Next Friday, he will meet with about 15 key social conservative Iowans in Des Moines. "There's potential for him, because no one's begun to coalesce around any one candidate," says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance. "I think there's some opportunity; it just depends on what he has to say."

Possible dropouts

Point three, on potential dropouts: One candidate to watch on that score is former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. His candidacy has not caught on so far, and he may be a casualty of Ames. Mr. Huckabee and Senator Brownback, too, may get caught short in Ames, but with only one top-tier face in the crowd, some lower-tier faces might get a second wind – read, a boost in donations – by coming in second, third, or even fourth in Ames.

Another name to watch is Tom Tancredo, a congressman from Colorado, who has built his campaign around his tough stand against illegal immigration. If he can't gain traction in a field largely devoid of the big players, he may have to reconsider. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California could be another casualty.

Then there's Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, and the only libertarian in the field. He has gained stature – and funds – from his maverick position in the party, opposing the Iraq war and anything that smacks of "big government."

"He's a real wild card," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "He hasn't spent much time here, but he's now on the air [with advertising]. He has a very committed group of supporters, though nobody knows how many.… He could be a surprise."

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