So who will win the cavalcade, the GOP straw poll in Ames, Iowa this Saturday, Aug. 13? And does it matter?
Jimmy Carter came into Iowa in 1975 with a 2 percent name recognition, won the Jackson Day straw poll and was eventually elected president. Ever since this event has been the biggest nonbinding contest in American politics. So yes, it matters.
Even so, George H.W. Bush won the GOP straw poll in 1979 but Reagan won the nomination. Pat Robertson won in 1987 but came in second in the Iowa caucus the following January. Eventually, George H.W. Bush won the nomination and the presidency. In 1999, George W. Bush won the straw poll and the White House.
What makes candidates spend millions of dollars on this nonbinding event?
First, because the contest has a long shelf life. The winner has a five month fundraising boom until the Iowa caucus in January when delegates are chosen for real. The winner will probably get all of his money back and more.
Second, it is a great rehearsal for winning the Iowa caucus which really counts. Recently, five times the winner of the Democrat or Republican Iowa straw poll went on to win the caucus.
Here is a short handicap of the odds.
Mitt Romney: The former governonr of Massachusetts is the front-runner in national GOP polls and has raised the biggest war chest. But he is slipping and is already running behind Michele Bachmann in Iowa.
According to many of my friends, Romney is the establishment favorite of George W. Bush and Karl Rove, who are quietly sending their money and their people his way. Publicly, Romney is skipping the Ames, Iowa straw poll but behind the scenes his people are scrambling, hoping for what they call an "organic" surprise win.
Romney people in Iowa have been told to go to the polls and bring as many people as possible. It is a dangerous business, like having one foot in the boat and one on the dock.
If Romney wins, he will say that he did it with one hand tied behind his back. If he loses, he will say it didn't count because he didn't really try his best. But skipping the straw poll, which is the state party's most important fundraiser, will make him some enemies in Iowa and make winning the caucus next January that much harder.
Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota congresswoman is the Iowa front-runner. For a couple of years she faithfully audited Congressman Ron Paul's Thursday group. The wheels must have been turning. "If I can merge this new tea party movement with Evangelical Christian support, I could win Iowa." By all odds she has pulled it off.
Nowadays, Bachmann, who voted for the Bush bank bailout and represented the IRS in citizen audits, is portrayed by the national media as a tea party leader. She should win this Ames contest and win it big. Iowa is her home state, her birthplace. But if she doesn't win convincingly her brand may be in trouble. Former Alsaka Gov. Sarah Palin, or more likely, current Texas Gov. Rick Perry, may step in to pick up the pieces.
Tim Pawlenty: This may be the big surprise. According to a report from WHO the NBC television affiliate in Des Moines, the former governor of Minnesota has rented 50 buses and outside organizations have provided more. If this is true, Pawlenty may very well pull an upset and win the poll.
He is pumping all of his money into the contest. He was all over national television last week. And he is attacking Bachmann publicly. Pawlenty's Achilles' heel is his less than conservative record in Minnesota. As governor, he praised Mitt Romney's healthcare in Massachusetts and talked up the idea of mandated insurance for his state.
Ron Paul: He is called "the father of the tea party" and described by David Stockman as "the only presidential candidate who really understands the economy." Paul has surged this week and is now coming in third in most national polls. If he beats Romeny or Pawlenty it will be huge. If he beats Bachmann, it will be the talk of the nation for five months.
Paul's surge this week in Iowa is likely linked to the debt limit crisis and the Standard & Poor's downgrading of American credit. In 2003 Ron Paul predicted the housing bubble with its catastrophic impact on homeowners and mortgage lenders. More recently he was the first public figure to predict the credit downgrading.
Former Congressman Newt Gingrich saw his chances fade with internal staff disputes. Businessman Herman Cain, who was credited with winning the South Carolina GOP debate, saw his campaign collapse when voters learned more about him. It turns out that the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza was also the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Voters are not too happy with economic insiders.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum never quite got off the ground.
Here are the most recent Iowa poll, conducted Aug. 4 by Rasmussen.
Doug Wead is a New York Times best-selling author and a former adviser to two American presidents. He is senior adviser to the Ron Paul campaign.
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