The GOP presidential straw poll has long been a fixture of the campaign, serving as an early gauge of organizational strength — not to mention a hefty fundraiser for the state party. But with announcements Wednesday from two of the top GOP candidates that they won't be "playing" in Ames this summer, its role in this cycle has been reduced to, well, an afterthought.
As we told you, Rudy Giuliani's was the first campaign to announce it would not be allocating the financial resources (which the campaign told reporters would have been an estimated $3 million worth) to getting folks to show up in Ames in August. Handed a nice little opening, John McCain's camp followed a few hours later.
Mitt Romney, who was already in near full-steam mode for the event, claimed victory. Spokesperson Kevin Madden sent out a statement saying, in part, "it looks as if we just beat those campaigns in Iowa two months earlier than we had planned on beating them." And, not coincidentally, an internal Romney poll suddenly popped up showing the former Massachusetts governor with a whopping 17-point lead in the state. While Romney may seem to have won this round, it's a hollow victory at best: A win by default is rarely satisfying.
With McCain and Giuliani not playing, there's no reason to think Fred Thompson would decide to should he formally enter the race next month, as expected. That would leave Romney and the rest of the field matched up in a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time event that few would notice.
The Iowa GOP is scrambling to keep up the façade. State chairman Ray Hoffman told The Associated Press that McCain and Giuliani are making a mistake and that the straw poll will still see a record turnout. "They are missing a huge opportunity," Hoffman said. In reality, they are taking away a potential opportunity for Romney — and the rest of the field — to make a big splash.
The Romney camp has the money, the organization and the momentum currently to credibly say they have scared two of the bigger fish away. But for others, like Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback, the diminishment of the event is a gut punch.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Thompson acknowledged the turn of events is putting a crimp in his strategy. As a well-known former governor of neighboring Wisconsin, Thompson is banking his entire strategy on Iowa, and a surprisingly strong showing in the straw poll could have put him, or another underdog, in the game. Thompson said he's rethinking things after the announcements from Giuliani and McCain. "Now that they're not in," Thompson said, "it doesn't have as much value, unless I can turn it into something. And that's what I'm still thinking about."
On the bright side, the lower-tier candidates may have just gotten a precious gift in this process — time. By most evaluations, the straw poll was to serve as a winnowing process. History and conventional wisdom said to look for at least a few candidates to leave the race as a result of a poor showing. As long as the event is de-valued, however, it could allow the field to stick around until the real ballgame — the caucuses in January. And if they stick around long enough, there's no telling what might happen. — Vaughn Ververs
Eyes On July: With this week's debates out of the way, the next circled date on the political calendar is the end of the second fundraising quarter of the year. A few details have already started to leak out, and they've given rise to a prediction that's gained some traction over the past few days: Barack Obama will outraise Hillary Clinton.
The left-leaning blog Huffington Post quoted an Obama fund-raiser who said, "It's a matter of pure mathematics. We had 104,000 donors in the first quarter; Clinton had 60,000. And while 75 percent of Hillary's contributors had maxed out, only 50 percent of ours had. So we had had a lot more potential to grow — and we did."
The New York Times has also fueled the guessing game, citing a confidential document — perhaps leaked intentionally by Clinton's campaign — that shows a mixed bag, with some events not meeting their fundraising goals, but an overall total that should far eclipse the $26 million she raised between January and March.
Solid debate performances have allowed Clinton to maintain a grip, however tenuous, on the front-runner position. But if Obama outdoes her in second-quarter fundraising — always tougher than the first quarter — she may have to make some room at the top for her rival. — David Miller
Already On The Rise: A poll out today offers promising news for Fred Thompson. The former senator-turned-actor has risen to second place among Florida voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. He trailed only Rudy Giuliani, 31 percent to 14 percent. At the end of April, Thompson only had the support of 5 percent of voters. He was also competitive with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in general election match-ups — trailing both, but within the margin of error.
It will be interesting to see where these numbers, as well as polls from other states, go once Thompson officially announces and starts campaigning. We could find out whether Republicans are excited about the idea of Fred Thompson, or the man himself. — David Miller
GOP Rift Growing: Romney, in an interview with The Associated Press, said today he does not believe America's presence in Iraq should become a drawn-out, multi-decade affair like that in South Korea — a comparison the Bush administration recently made.
All the major GOP candidates, including Romney, say they supported the initial invasion of Iraq, as well as the boost in troop levels that started earlier this year. But Tuesday's debate, which saw candidates distancing themselves from the president, and Romney's remarks today, suggest Mr. Bush is an increasing liability among Republicans. Opposing a 50-year occupation in Iraq may not be a bold move, but now that the door is open, expect Romney and other candidates to disagree with the administration more and more as the campaign moves forward. — David Miller
Taking Time Off The Trail: Republican Tom Tancredo has been accused of running a one-issue campaign based around his hardline stance against illegal immigration. The Colorado congressman is doing nothing to dispel that perception, announcing that he's going to reduce his visits to Iowa and New Hampshire in order to travel to Republican-held congressional districts and pressure the incumbents there to vote against the immigration bill now before Congress.
According to the Rocky Mountain News, Tancredo is going to make sure his Republican colleagues in the House know that he'll work to defeat them next year if they support the bill. "This is the whole ballgame here to a large extent," he said.
His travels might win him brownie points with Republican voters who passionately oppose the legislation — not a small number of people, relatively speaking. But one could argue he'd be better off sticking to states that come early in the primary and caucus calendar, injecting immigration into the debate over who the party's 2008 nominee should be. Obviously, though, Tancredo thinks winning a battle now, over the immigration bill, is better than shaping one for the future. — David Miller
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By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller