Pure Horserace: The Last Straw

Republican presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., left, stands at his podium as fellow candidate former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson walks past during a break in the ABC News Republican presidential debate, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo
Politicians are fond of saying: "The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day." But that isn't always true. For all the debates and scientific polls we've seen so far on the road to the White House, none has produced a real game-changing moment. Tomorrow, that is going to change. The Ames Straw Poll is non-binding in terms of delegates, but because the Republicans in it are trying to win it, thus making it a test of their campaigns' strength, it almost certainly will leave the race looking different than it does now. That is why today we're bringing you an All-Ames Edition of Pure Horserace.

First, some basic handicapping. Despite what other candidates may say, it appears very unlikely that anyone other than Mitt Romney is going to win this contest. A recent University of Iowa poll showed Romney leading the GOP field, with 27 percent of Republican caucus-goers supporting the former Massachusetts governor. One-third of those planning to attend the Straw Poll also said they backed Romney. Splitting the difference between those two numbers provides a pretty good "expectations bar" for Romney — anything over 30 percent is a job well done; anything under may be portrayed as a disappointment, since Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson are not actively competing. Of course, anything over 35 percent would be considered dominant.

But even a weaker-than-expected first-place finish probably won't kick Romney out of the GOP's top tier. The poll's real impact will be felt among the second-tier candidates, making second place the most-watched position on Saturday. The University of Iowa poll showed Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo holding that spot, at 16 percent. Giuliani was in third at 12 percent — which could be crucial if the actual poll turns out the same way. Finishing below someone who isn't even trying to win, and who holds views on social issues contrary to Iowa's conservative Republican base, may be a death knell.

Tancredo can't rest easy, though. While his views on illegal immigration play well in a state with a large agriculture sector, his recent remarks about threatening to bomb Islamic holy sites may scare off some voters. Other candidates have invested quite a bit in a strong straw poll finish, to the point that it could be a last stand for Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. It's somewhat less decisive for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who stepped up his straw poll operation a little later than most in the field — but he still needs to show he can shine outside of a debate. In addition, we'll learn whether Ron Paul's fervent Internet following can be turned into actual support — Paul is certainly trying to do that, airing TV ads in Iowa this week. The man with no real story headed into the poll is California Rep. Duncan Hunter. There is a reason for that — he may be the most likely to drop out once the results are announced. — David Miller

Don't You Forget About Me: Giuliani, McCain and Thompson are unlikely to be seen in Ames this weekend, even though all are technically on the straw poll ballot. But one possible candidate who isn't among the choices — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — will be there, ostensibly to promote American Solutions, the nonpartisan organization he founded aimed at bringing local, state and federal officials together to discuss the country's problems.

It's a smart move by Gingrich, who gets to promote his cause, connect with some of Iowa's most loyal Republicans — and remind people that his entry into the race is still a possibility. Yet he can enter Ames without worrying about expectations, and, depending on what he does there, leave with more buzz than before.

Perhaps best of all, he's doing it before Fred Thompson visits the state next week. — David Miller

The Man Behind The Action: While the candidates will get the lion's share of attention in Ames, one undisputed winner is the Iowa Republican Party, which runs the poll. The man leading that effort is the party's executive director, Chuck Laudner, who is the subject of this week's Political Players. Laudner told CBSNews.com's David Miller that McCain and Giuliani may have made a fatal mistake by not participating the poll. He also takes a look at the field, analyzing who has the best shot at the second-place spot, and predicts that the presumed front-runner may not win by as much as expected. To learn more about the poll's history and Laudner's take on this year's competition, check out this week's interview.

Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

By David Miller