DES MOINES, Iowa – Some Iowa Republicans are questioning whether presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani intends to largely skip the state's leadoff caucuses.
A sluggish start to campaign organizing and indecision about whether to compete in a high-profile straw poll in August has prompted speculation that Giuliani will pay only cursory attention to Iowa and instead focus on other early election states where his high name recognition would pay off.
Giuliani has led in national polls of Republican voters. However, a recent poll by the Des Moines Sunday Register of likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a strong lead of 30 percent, compared to 18 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain and 17 percent for Giuliani.
"The best organizations have to be McCain and Romney," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the state's top Republican elected official. "I don't think Giuliani is very far along on organizing."
His aides insist Giuliani is forming a strong campaign staff in Iowa.
"We are putting in place a full and complete field organization and leadership organization to compete," said Mark Campbell, a Giuliani political adviser.
Republican candidates are likely to spend millions of dollars to deliver backers to Iowa State University for the straw poll event Aug. 11, which features speeches by candidates and offers activists and others a chance to cast a ballot in favor of a presidential hopeful.
In 2000, some candidates who fared poorly in the straw poll dropped out of the race for the nomination, making the event an early primary of sorts. The Iowa Democratic Party doesn't conduct a straw poll.
Giuliani's rivals are already spending time and money on turnout. Romney, for example, has a staffer focused full-time on getting supporters to attend.
"We're committed to playing in the straw poll and we're treating it as an organizational benchmark," said Romney strategist Gentry Collins.
Republican consultant Bob Haus, who isn't working on a campaign, contends that the delayed decision by Giuliani could damage his image.
"The bigger question is, from a man basing his candidacy on decisiveness and leadership, waffling on the straw poll is a real question," Haus said.
Organization is key to scoring well in the straw poll — and in the caucuses that follow.
"Iowa is a grass-roots state," said Chuck Larson Jr., a former state Republican chairman who is working for McCain's campaign. "If you are going to participate here, it requires boots on the ground,"
Following that dictum, McCain has assigned 20 staffers to Iowa, and Romney has 17. Giuliani aides said they've put seven staffers to work in Iowa and intend to hire more.
Campbell, the Giuliani adviser, said other campaigns are emphasizing the straw poll because the event is essential to them. Given Giuliani's fundraising success coupled with his advantage in name recognition, Campbell said, the event isn't make or break for the former New York mayor.
"The real issue here is McCain and Romney both have to win the straw poll, in order to justify them in moving forward," said Campbell. "If we play in the straw poll it will be part of our effort to win the Iowa caucuses. They've got all of their eggs in Iowa."
That could be, but Republican strategists said Giuliani may not understand how key a strong straw poll showing is to success five months later in the precinct caucuses.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Richard Steward worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and recalled that some advised Bush to avoid the straw poll. With Bush perceived as the front-runner, his strategists worried that anything less than a landslide victory would be seen as a setback.
Ultimately, Steward said, Iowa advisers prevailed and Bush joined in the straw poll. He went on to win convincingly with nearly one-third of the vote.
"It's not realistic to not do the straw poll and then expect to be competitive in the caucuses," Steward said.
Haus said organizing the straw poll serves as a dry run for the caucuses, enabling campaigns to test their turnout operation and spot problems.
"The benefit of the straw poll is it helps in January," said Haus. "It gives you the ability to build your organization."
If Giuliani intends to compete in Iowa, organizers of other campaigns said he had better move quickly.
"The conventional wisdom, which I certainly share, is you need organization here and organization here takes time to build," said Collins.