Since the 1970s, the Iowa caucuses have been one of the earliest indications of a presidential candidate's primary strength. And even before the actual caucuses take place, the Ames Straw Poll in the fall of the year before charts the feelings of important voters.
And yet some potential Republican candidates have indicated they may well skip Iowa altogether.
This week Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and just-departed ambassador to China, says he has no plans to campaign in the Hawkeye State. Huntsman says his opposition to corn and soybean subsidies means it's not worth the energy.
"I probably won't be spending a lot of time in Iowa," Huntsman told a group in New Hampshire - the early primary state he's choosing to focus most of his attention on.
His comments are drawing swift, tart reaction from Iowans, who have sharply slated a perceived lack of attention from White House wannabes this time around. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad told potential candidates last month that they needed to make Iowa a priority - and do it now - while the state is still "wide open."
Secretary State of State Matt Schultz asked in a statement whether Huntsman's real motivation comes from worries about having to "explain his position on other issues," saying some current Iowa officeholders oppose subsidies. Even the state's senior senator, Chuck Grassley, called the decision to skip Iowa "a mistake."
The problem is that many national office seekers see Iowa as a one-issue state. Iowa accounts for about 30 percent of the nation's ethanol production.
But the state is also seen as more socially conservative than say, New Hampshire and Nevada, posing a potential problem for Mormons Huntsman and Mitt Romney. That has some wondering whether it may slip in importance for the 2012 election cycle.
The Iowa GOP head says no one should assume that's the case.
"I think any candidate that comes to Iowa, and those that have been here, understands that we've got the same concerns that Americans have across the country right now," says party leader Matt Strawn.
He goes on to identify their top concerns as exploding deficits, lack of job creation, implementation of the new health care law and continued spending in Washington -- largely agreeing with Republicans nationwide.
Candidates who skip Iowa do so at their own peril.
"Just ask President Rudy Giuliani," Iowa native and current head of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute David Yepsen jokes. Giuliani famously passed over Iowa - and many other early states -- in 2008, saying his team would focus solely on Florida. His campaign quickly fizzled, and he now admits the mistake.
Iowa insiders say pricey advertising campaigns won't win their vote and warn potential candidates of the danger of not committing important one-on-one time with voters getting to know their concerns.
"While we're definitely looking for candidates that share our core personal and cultural convictions," Strawn says, "we also need to see leadership on those kitchen-table issues."