Next, Iowa straw poll: Why it matters to GOP presidential candidates
Six candidates are actively competing in the Iowa straw poll on Saturday. Those who fare poorly may find that fundraising dries up. Those who do well may see an infusion of campaign cash.
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This matters, because to take part in the straw poll one has to be an Iowa resident and vote in person.
Bachmann, a native of Iowa and a tea-party firebrand, also generates enthusiasm among Iowa conservatives – but she entered the race late and not all that organized. Still, as a champion of homeschooling, she, too, is reaching out to that and other Christian conservative networks. There are other signs that she’s getting her act together.
“Bachmann is in hyperdrive on trying to get people out to the straw poll,” says John Mayne, a lawyer in Sioux City, in conservative northwestern Iowa, who is undecided in the race. “The robo-dialing is almost oppressive. I think the phone rings twice a day from Bachmann. I don’t hear from anyone else.”
How these top three emerge from Ames depends in part on expectations. Bachmann is expected to finish first; therefore, anything less will take some of the shine off her star. The charismatically challenged Pawlenty has kept expectations low – he often mentions his "back of the pack" polling – but realistically a less-than-second-place finish for him could be problematic and may deny him a needed fundraising boost. A first-place finish for Paul would cement his reputation for skill at winning straw polls, but it would not necessarily recast his image as a niche candidate.
The Romney factor
Notable for his absence is Mr. Romney. He is taking part in a candidate debate Aug. 11, also in Ames, but will have no official presence at the day-long festival of politics that the straw poll – a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP – has become: no free entry tickets or bus ride there, no air-conditioned tent with free Hickory Park barbecue, no entertainment (Bachmann is bringing in Randy Travis), no speech in the big auditorium.
In 2007, Romney spent $1.5 million in an all-out effort to win Ames – which he did – but lost the Iowa caucuses five months later to Mr. Huckabee. This time, his supporters say, he has nothing to prove; better to conserve his resources.
Romney still polls well in Iowa, leading to speculation about a stealth operation on his behalf at Ames. Romney backers will certainly be there, waving the flag. Romney says he’s not skipping Iowa altogether, as is the other sort-of-moderate in the race, Mr. Huntsman. Romney’s just keeping expectations low for the caucuses. Soon thereafter, New Hampshire will hold its primary, which Romney must win to remain a viable candidate, analysts say.
Romney is also reading the handwriting on the wall. Since the 2008 cycle, “social conservatives have taken over the Iowa Republican Party,” says Dianne Bystrom, a political scientist at Iowa State. “Republicans in Iowa are a much more diverse group than what gets covered in the media. But given the ... state of politics in Iowa, Romney’s strategy is a smart one.”
If all goes according to Romney’s plan, the nomination race will boil down to him and an alternative. But the field may not be complete yet.