Whether he wants to be or not, former Sen. Fred Thompson will probably be on the ballot when thousands of Iowa Republicans meet on Aug. 11 at the Ames straw poll.
After months of speculation that the "Law & Order" star would leap into the crowded race for the Republican nomination for president, aides let the cat out of the bag on Wednesday, saying Thompson was likely to declare his intentions in early July.
But that does not automatically mean he will participate in the much-hyped event.
Some Thompson advisers are urging him not to contest the straw poll, Mike Allen reported when he broke the story on Politico.com that Thompson would run.
But the poll — a traditional test of strength and candidate winnower — is run by the Iowa Republican Party, and the party's members, not the candidates, decide which contenders are listed.
"It's our party, and we decide whose name is on the ballot," said Iowa GOP executive director Chuck Laudner in an interview at party headquarters Thursday.
"I predict he will be on the ballot, one way or another," Laudner added with a grin.
The party's state central committee meets next weekend and will decide exactly who to include on the ballot. The event, at which candidates must shell out at least $15,000 to get a space near Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, is a major fundraiser for the state party.
Laudner said he had been contacted by an adviser close to Thompson in late April and that he felt certain the former senator would "play to win" in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
Laudner said doing otherwise would be a mistake.
Poor showings in Ames have produced "a lot of chalk outlines in the past," Laudner said, referring to candidates who dropped out after finishing in the back of the pack.
Using Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who derided the straw poll in 1999 and skipped the caucuses in 2000, as an example, Laudner observed that "it takes a while for that to sink in for some." (McCain got 83 straw poll votes in 1999, despite his not contesting the event.)
Laudner, who spoke amid maps of the Iowa State campus and drafts of the straw poll's layout, predicted that Rudy Giuliani would also participate in the August event. The former New York mayor, whose campaign has not yet indicated whether he'll participate, had two staffers attend a recent straw poll planning session held by the state party and GOP campaigns, Laudner said.
Although the poll is barely 2 1/2 months away, it is not too late for a candidate to make his case, Laudner argued.
Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the straw poll in August of 1999 by a convincing 2,500 votes over his nearest competitor, Laudner pointed out, and he didn't visit Iowa or open an office in the state until June. He also had supporters urging him against playing in the straw poll for fear that a bad showing could damage a perception of strength.
"The field isn't set yet," Laudner noted, and much can be done in the next two months. But after Ames, "the conversation turns from who's in to who's going to get out."
By Jonathan Martin
© 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company