A good performance in Ames, the campaign believes, will further propel Romney to front-runner prominence. They also think it will seriously wound his competitors and quickly winnow the field — the way it did in 1999.
A poor performance in Ames floats the perception of a faltering campaign — and nobody gives money to a candidate in decline, argues Christopher Rants, Republican leader in the Iowa House and a Romney supporter. Rants, who flew to Austin eight years ago to convince then-governor Bush to enter the Iowa poll, predicts that if Romney finishes first or second, then either McCain or Giuliani will be knocked out. “It causes the money to dry up and the volunteers to move to other campaigns.”
For all its perceived importance, the Iowa straw poll has been held only four times, and its predictive value prior to Bush’s 1999 performance was weak: George Bush Sr. won in 1979, when Ronald Reagan won the nomination, and Pat Robertson won in 1987. Phil Gramm tied eventual nominee Bob Dole in 1995.
Even now, it doesn’t come close to reflecting voter sentiment — not when those votes are paid for by candidates. Bush spent roughly $800,000 on the one-day event in 1999. Forbes, who finished second, spent $2 million.
This year will nonetheless make those numbers look like nickel slots. The state GOP is expecting 50,000 people to attend, more than double the 1999 number. Giuliani has said it would take at least $2 million for him to make a decent showing. Romney, who spent well over a quarter million to stage his January “National Call Day,” figures to go much higher.
Giuliani, who’s worried about the potential effect of a bad showing, is the only major candidate not committed to participating. For weeks, Iowa newspapers and blogs have been full of stories about his waffling. The Des Moines Register recently reported that Giuliani’s advisers are urging him to commit, but he has not yet made up his mind.
Romney has no such qualms — and he is doing his best to promote the notion of Ames’s vital importance. On his first campaign trip to Iowa, in early April, Giuliani referred to the Ames straw poll as a “circus.” To which Romney commented, later that day, “If there is a circus, we are going to be the ringleader.”
At campaign appearances in that state, Romney asks crowds for their support in August, not January when the caucuses take place, according to local reports.
He’s not the only one already planning for Ames. Tommy Thompson recently claimed to have 1800 Iowans pledged to bring five friends to the event. (If true, that represents more votes than Bush got in 1999.) Tancredo said last week that the Ames straw poll is the next benchmark for his campaign. Brownback has called the event central to his strategy. And McCain has been working toward it since losing the nomination in 2000, as one observer says.
But nobody is as devoted as Romney’s staff. “They’ve got their plan,” says Rants, “and they’re working it hard.”
Asked what could trip Romney up between now and August 11, most observers warn of the likelihood of a gaffe, a stupid remark that exposes his weakness on issues.