Six months before the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney has taken a commanding organizational lead in this traditional kick-off state.
Arizona Sen. John McCain's financial difficulties have forced him to dramatically scale back his Iowa campaign, and it's not clear whether former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or ex-Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson will fully engage in the Hawkeye State caucuses.
That leaves Romney as the sole representative of the GOP top tier to commit to the traditional Ames Straw Poll and offer himself to voters for up close and personal inspections.
The former Massachusetts governor has 20 full-time staffers, coordinators in most of the state's 99 counties, and a group of about 50 "super volunteers" that has already swept through the universe of likely caucus-goers with initial phone calls and have begun going door to door in key precincts.
His effort got a big boost last week when McCain, down to just $2 million cash on hand, halved his Iowa staff to seven to save money. Let go were McCain's state director and seven other operatives in the state who had been building the senator's organization for months.
It was a hard blow for McCain, not least because he was already viewed with some suspicion by conservative activists in the state.
The senator's public identification with the immigration bill has been crushing.
"Even as far left as Tom Harkin is, he got so many calls on this issue that he voted with the conservatives on this," observed Mark Lundberg, chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, referring to the state's Democratic senator. "That could be the nail in McCain's coffin in Iowa."
The Arizonan, however, retains the loyalties of a group of Hawkeye State political veterans — starting with his campaign manager Terry Nelson — and has pledged to fight in Iowa.
Giuliani Commitment Questioned
Giuliani has also shaken up his staff in the state recently, moving K.C. Jones, who had been his regional political director, into Des Moines to helm the caucus effort.
Hoping to fend off the notion that he's anything less than totally committed to the state, Giuliani also deployed senior staffers from his national campaign to the state last month to develop a team.
But while his presence has grown — Giuliani staffers are now regulars at GOP county committee meetings — activists worry that he's not taking the state seriously.
"Giuliani has very limited, almost none that I am aware of, organization in my part of the state," said Kevin Alons, chairman of the Woodbury County GOP, the western Iowa jurisdiction that includes Sioux City.
The former mayor has been to Iowa four times this year but has limited his travel to the state's two largest cities and has yet to touch down in western Iowa, the most conservative part of the state.
For Giuliani, his best caucus hopes may lie in the politics of pluralities. Should Thompson play in Iowa, conservatives may split their vote between the actor/politician and Romney, with some second-tier candidates also picking up support.
That scenario could allow Giuliani to win enough moderates and fiscal or security conservatives to enjoy a plurality win.
But that premise rests on two known unknowns.
First, Thompson has not yet committed to competing in Iowa. While he has already made much-hyped visits to New Hampshire and South Carolina, he has yet to touch down in the Hawkeye State. (Thompson has, however, recently hired an experienced Iowa hand, Andrew Dorr, for his campaign in waiting and Dorr has already begun reaching out to some of the laid-off former McCain aides.)
Second, it's uncertain whether the lesser-known GOP candidates will have the resources to stay in the race until January.
With 13 paid staffers and 46 college interns on the ground helping to organize for the straw poll, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback probably has the most far-reaching organization behind Romney now that McCain has had to cut back.
But Brownback had just a little over $800,000 on hand after the first quarter and raised only $1.5 million in the past three months. A spokesman declined to reveal how much money they now have in the bank.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have also amassed staff in the state in the run-up to Ames, but they also face similar financial challenges.