Handicapping Iowa

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The latest apparent victim of the recent trend of frontloading the presidential primaries and caucuses is the Iowa Straw Poll, scheduled for this August in Ames, Iowa. This straw poll is not so much a defining political event as it is, albeit recently, part of the color and ritual of the presidential selection process in the United States.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has decided he will not participate in this straw poll, although he will actively be in the Iowa Caucus, now set for January. Right after the announcement of Mr. Giuliani’s decision, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, announced he would do the same. With two of the three major Republican candidates for the presidential nomination out of the event, it would seem that its traditional importance has been diminished.

Neither Mr. Giuliani nor Mr. McCain have been leading in recent polls in Iowa. The third major announced candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken the lead in public-opinion polls there.

The attempt to downplay the straw poll by Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain may not work, however. Mr. Romney now becomes the overwhelming favorite to win it, but the imminent entrance into the race of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson may only transform the poll into a different kind of event. Indeed, this may now be just the opportunity Mr. Thompson and his campaign need to demonstrate his support and credibility at a vital moment in the contest.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich apparently won’t be able to take advantage of the new circumstances because he has delayed his decision to run until September. Mr. Gingrich has already appeared frequently in Iowa, and might have been a factor in the straw poll.

Mr. Thompson is expected to formally enter the race in July, but this will be relatively late inasmuch as there are already 10 announced Republican candidates, many of whom have been actively seeking their party’s nomination for months. As a celebrity well-known to most Americans through his film and TV appearances, Mr. Thompson, like Mr. Gingrich, can afford to enter late. In fact, it may be to their advantage to do so. The large field of candidates has a frontrunner and a first tier, but no one is in a command position.

The combination of frontloading the primaries, most of which will take place on Feb. 5, and the large number of credible candidates has raised the possibility that the Republican nomination will not be decided until the GOP convention next September in St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. Thompson’s imminent entrance into the race only increases this possibility. If Mr. Gingrich enters the race in October, it might become highly probable that there will be no nominee until the convention.

But the straw poll now takes on a new importance. Even with Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain out of it, it could become the vehicle that makes Mr. Thompson not only a first-tier candidate (which he probably already is), but the new frontrunner. Of course, all of this remains to be seen, but many of the votes that would have been obtained by Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain (they will still receive many votes even if they don’t actively participate) might go to Mr. Thompson.

Should Mr. Thompson, playing his participation in Iowa for all his worth, actually upset Mr. Romney and win the straw poll (or come in a close second), the publicity could be a turning point in the contest.

It should be remembered that not only is there a dramatic frontloading of the primaries this year in late January and on Feb. 5, but the schedule of the traditionally earliest voting events, the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary, have been supplemented by one new caucus (Nevada) and one new primary (South Carolina) at about the same time.

The rationale for Mr. Giuliani’s withdrawal from the straw poll was that he needed to marshall his energy and resources elsewhere. In light of the frontloading, this may be a justifiable and smart strategy. Mr. McCain’s strategy may be equally smart. But in the multicandidate chess game this 2008 cycle, there are always unintended consequences possible from every significant decision that is made.

No one suggests that the Iowa Caucus is dispositive to the GOP nomination. It has been, on the other hand, a colorful and celebratory occasion that formally opens the Republican presidential season. Unlike the scheduled Fox News Channel Democratic presidential debate, however, individual candidates cannot “will it away” by not showing up. Candidates, eager for public attention, will be there, Iowa Republicans will be there, and the media will be there. There will be a “winner” and there will be lots of media stories.

And who knows, it may be more important than we thought it would be.

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