By JENNIFER JACOBS
With the Iowa straw poll a mere 90 days away, the absence of an obvious leader in the GOP race for the presidency, or even an obvious lineup, has left Republicans in a state of unease – but the uncertainty has also heightened anticipation, insiders say.
“It’s wide open, and I think it’s extremely unpredictable,” said Mary Cownie, a former spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party.
Politics insiders in Iowa say the dynamics of the race will make this year’s nonbinding event in Ames different from past years: More than anything, it could be a way to get a second-tier ticket punched, or serve as a path to legitimacy for someone who’s betting it all on Iowa.
Yet there’s still time on the clock – just barely – for a wild card of national stature to emerge on the straw poll stage, strategists said. After all, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, scion of a political dynasty, didn’t make his first Iowa visit until June 12, 1999, and still won the straw poll.
Scheduled this year for Aug. 13, the straw poll is a combination state GOP fundraising event, closely watched measuring stick of early campaign strength, and a dress rehearsal for the first-in-the-nation caucuses here in February.
Republicans Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are definitely in for the straw poll, Des Moines Register interviews with campaign aides and Iowa insiders show.
Poll-leading power candidate Mitt Romney will make his first Iowa visit of the year on May 27, but insiders don’t expect a heavy presence here from him – or from Jon Huntsman or Sarah Palin before the straw poll.
An Aug. 11 Fox News/Iowa Republican Party debate, scheduled just two days earlier, will make it harder for contenders to debate and then skip town, campaign aides said.
Mike Huckabee took one unknown variable out of the political calculus Saturday night by announcing he would not seek the presidency.
The former Arkansas governor came in a surprising second in the 2007 straw poll and won the 2008 Iowa caucuses. If he had joined the race and campaigned actively for the straw poll, he would have been expected to win, relegating the rest of the field to competing for second.
Insiders see variety of scenarios unfolding
With the field far from settled, top Iowa operatives outlined a number of possible scenarios for potential straw poll contestants:
– Romney supporters said they don’t think he needs to go through the tuneup of the straw poll and may keep a light calendar in Iowa through the caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6. He went all-out to compete in the straw poll last cycle and won. So he doesn’t have to prove he can win in Ames, the theory goes.
But Romney’s lead evaporated through the fall, and a united evangelical turnout dropped him to second place in the caucuses.
This year, Romney can save his cash with, for the most part, little pressure, insiders said.
– Pawlenty appears poised for a full-out run at a high straw poll finish. He’s working from the traditional playbook that calls for a beefy Iowa team, the choicest strategists, a big cash outlay and a top finish in Ames to be viable. It’s Iowa or bust, politics watchers said.
“He’s put all his chips on the table early, so he needs to win the straw poll big or go home,” said Christopher Rants of Sioux City, a political consultant and former Republican leader in the Iowa House.
– Bachmann is someone who could upset him, several Republican insiders said.
“I think someone like Bachmann, who can whip people into a frenzy, can exert maximum pressure late, and turn this into a movement can pull off a stunner,” said Robert Haus, who managed Phil Gramm’s improbable tie with Bob Dole in the 1996 straw poll, and Steve Forbes’ second place to Bush in the 2000 straw poll and caucuses.
– Gingrich last week became the first big-name Republican to officially announce he is running for president, and he has scheduled a 17-event swing in Iowa this week. Craig Schoenfeld, Gingrich’s Iowa campaign director, confirmed Thursday that Gingrich will participate in the straw poll.
– Some Republicans have written off Palin, despite increasing efforts by Organize4Palin in Iowa, led by activists Peter Singleton of California and Michelle McCormick of Texas.
“She’s not running,” Rants said flatly.
– Paul, who made his presidential bid official Friday, is a wild card who might be someone to watch in August, strategists said. The level of organization amid libertarian-leaning Iowans can be hard for the Republican establishment to detect.
– Or Donald Trump might have enough celebrity after his big speech to an expected crowd of about 2,600 in Des Moines on June 10 to score a victory in the straw poll, insiders said.
‘A relentless project’ in campaign organization
To win the straw poll, a candidate will need only about 5,000 to 6,000 votes – but that’s no small feat, strategists said. Success is not about name recognition, ballot appeal or fiery speeches. It takes money to pay for block-and-tackle organization building to get people to Ames.
“It’s not an easy task. It’s a relentless project,” said Steve Scheffler, whose campaign experience dates to 1987, when he was a staffer for religious conservative Pat Robertson’s presidential efforts here.
The straw poll may weed out lesser-known contenders, perhaps Gary Johnson, Fred Karger and Roy Moore, who don’t have a large following, but could linger on the Iowa scene as long as they’ve got a tank of gas.
A lower-than-expected showing in the straw poll can spell doom for a campaign. Dole, Sam Brownback, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Tommy Thompson are among its victims.
But skipping the straw poll could hold some peril for someone considered at the top of the heap now, said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor and co-author of the book “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, Third Edition.”
“You don’t want some lesser-known person to be able to use the straw poll to become a serious contender,” Goldford said. “If somebody like Huntsman or Johnson or Trump or Bachmann really were going to do something, and if they all of a sudden were to score big in the straw poll, relative to everybody else, that’s a real feather in their cap. The straw poll is definitely a momentum force.”
If better-knowns skip the straw poll, the contest would become an exercise in winnowing the social conservative candidates who stress their opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
Showing affects future coverage, fundraising
Some Republicans nationally question whether Iowa has become so dominated by social conservatives that the straw poll and caucuses are a poor test for candidates who need broad national appeal in the general election. Successful GOP presidential candidates usually need to attract fiscal conservatives, moderate Republicans and blue-dog Democrats in addition to social conservatives.
Cownie argued that Iowa is ultimately a good representation of all types of conservatives, and a good gauge of candidates for the rest of the country. The top concerns for the majority of Iowa Republicans are business, jobs and the economy, she said, but the more vocal and active social conservatives sometimes overshadow those who stay silent or have become disengaged when fiscal issues aren’t at the forefront, she said.
The straw poll continues to carry national weight, said George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. It attracts national news coverage, affects how the media perceives the presidential race, and can either help or hurt a candidate’s fundraising efforts.
Iowans will likely see an acceleration of campaigning for the straw poll after Memorial Day, several campaign aides said. If hopefuls aren’t ramping up efforts significantly in early June, it’s evidence they don’t intend to leverage what the straw poll can do for them.
Veteran Iowa strategist Eric Woolson, allied with Huckabee last cycle, said the lack of a runaway favorite can only add excitement to the straw poll.
“It’s like a close football game or a close baseball game,” he said. “I not only want to watch this to see how it turns out, but I want to get in there and participate and cheer for my team.”