The quadrennial farce known as the Ames Straw Poll has once again made its mark on the race for the Republican presidential nomination — by rewarding the candidate smart enough to avoid it.
In 2007, it was John McCain, who sat out the straw poll and finished a distant 10th. Last weekend, it was Mitt Romney hiding out in New Hampshire as Ames did its work. And because of it, Romney now stands closer to winning the presidency than at any time since he began his relentless, single-minded quest for it.
Four years ago, Mike Huckabee finished second in the poll (behind Romney), eliminating the field's other social conservatives and leading to his win over Romney in the Iowa caucuses — which in turn provided the opening for McCain to win New Hampshire and, ultimately, the nomination.
This year, Romney plummeted to a lowly seventh in Ames. And yet, it culminated a series of campaign developments almost too good to be true for the former Massachusetts governor:
* Newt Gingrich's campaign imploded, leaving him with neither voters nor money, and, as a result, setting loose a group of high-level advisors. They included some of Rick Perry's top political team, on loan because the Texas governor had no interest in running himself — until those advisors, left without a candidate or a paycheck after the Newtron bomb, proceeded to talk him into it.
* With Perry — one of the GOP's best fundraisers — deciding to run, money quickly dried up for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was otherwise poised to consolidate the (substantial) "anyone-but-Romney" wing of the GOP establishment. Drained of resources, Pawlenty was unable to buy enough advertising, tickets, and entertainment to win the Ames poll, and was forced to drop out.
* Michele Bachmann, who might have been expected to run a harebrained, shoot-from-the-hip sideshow of a campaign, instead put together a serious team, prepped effectively, and performed well in debates and other public appearances. This has given her enormous momentum, and — thanks in large part to a wise investment in Randy Travis to perform at her tent — a victory in Ames. Bachmann is now being described as the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses. This, as I wrote this past spring (see "Romney Rides Again," April 15), is exactly the scenario that could help Romney win the nomination — by scaring establishment Republicans into rallying behind him.
* Perry, who will likely dominate the race for a while, has probably already doomed his candidacy. That's because a year ago, when he thought he would never run, Perry wrote Fed Up!, a Glenn Beck–like screed against Washington, liberals, and the federal government. Unlike the calculated political books by Romney, Pawlenty, and others, Fed Up! put Perry on record with positions that even Tea Party conservatives will ultimately realize make him unelectable; he opposes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and the Department of Education, just for starters.