Mitt Romney has had a very good couple of months ever since reporting his huge raise of $23 million in the first quarter back in late March. However, the last week has not been as kind, first with the move by Fred Thompson signaling his entry in the race and then yesterday the transformation of the Iowa Ames straw poll from a major event into an afterthought, all of which threatens to blow up the Romney campaign's carefully laid out path to the nomination.
Romney's strategy has always been to leverage a win in the Iowa caucuses, followed up by a win in neighboring New Hampshire, and then use the momentum from those two early wins — coupled with massive money — to overwhelm his opponents as the race goes national.
With Rudy Giuliani and John McCain out of Ames and Thompson likely to be out as well, Romney gets very little out of a win in the Iowa straw poll in the dog days of August. The Giuliani campaign (and McCain's tag-along), has very wisely removed what would have otherwise been a tremendous opportunity for the Romney campaign.
What is interesting in this development is whether this is a precursor to Giuliani skipping Iowa entirely. Far-fetched maybe, and the Giuliani campaign has given no indication this is something they are considering, but I would not rule it out entirely.
This will be a totally different campaign and many of the old rules that political prognosticators and pundits have looked to for guidance may simply not hold in this cycle. The conventional Washington wisdom for much of 2006 and the first couple months of 2007 was that a pro-choice, socially liberal candidate like Giuliani had no chance of being the Republican nominee. However, after three debates, another month of a double-digit lead in the national polls, today most of these skeptical pundits will at least acknowledge that Giuliani does indeed have a real chance to get the nomination.
Romney has effectively exploited his fundraising advantage by going up on the air in both Iowa and New Hampshire with considerable success. In Iowa, for instance, Romney has gone from trailing by 18 points in the RCP Average at the beginning of April to a 1 point lead today, while in New Hampshire he has moved from a 9 point deficit to a 7 point lead. So it's no surprise that the Giuliani campaign wants to find ways to lower the significance of these early states that may not play to their candidates' strengths. The more Giuliani can turn the nominating contest into a national campaign the better his odds of capturing the Republican nomination, and vice-versa for Romney.
With Florida now slated to go January 29 -- where Giuliani retains a huge lead in the polls — followed by the massive February 5 primary with the huge delegate caches in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California, potentially Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina, the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire could be seriously diminished compared to other elections.
This has been argued both ways, and there is a credible argument that the compressed calendar actually increases the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, but that assumes that most of the leading candidates are competing 100 percent in the early small states.
What happens if Rudy and Hillary decide they don't want to play in Iowa because they are busy working on racking up truckloads of delegates in California, New York, Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania? Why give their competition an opportunity to best them in a caucus format that may not work to their advantage if they don't have to?
How important might Iowa be if the leading national front-runners in each party decide to skip it?