DES MOINES, Iowa - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not plan to compete in the Iowa Republican straw poll in August, an event he spent more than $1 million to win four years ago but that would divert time and money from a 2012 campaign designed to present him as a national candidate, aides confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday.
The decision is a measure of how different a Romney 2012 campaign would be from 2008. It is also further evidence that the non-binding contests, of which Iowa's is the best-known and highest profile, are seen as optional for better-known candidates. "It's a gamble that you put a lot of resources behind and it's not a predictor of who wins the caucuses. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's not," said Charlie Black, a 30-year Republican presidential campaign strategist who advised John McCain's 2008 effort. "It's an opportunity for underdogs. It's a trap for front-runners."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, also is not planning to compete in any other of the many nonbinding straw polls in early nominating states, including Michigan or Florida. The deadline to register delegates for the Florida straw poll in September is Friday.
"We respect the straw poll process. In the last presidential campaign we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them," Romney campaign spokesman Matt Rhoades said in a written statement provided to the AP. "This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses."
Romney has said he will campaign in Iowa, where he finished second in the 2008 caucuses. He visited Iowa last month, reconnecting with elements of the statewide network he built over the course of a year and with roughly $10 million in 2007. Romney aides also confirmed Thursday that he will participate in the Fox News Channel debate in Iowa scheduled two days before the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames.
But deciding not to spend money on straw polls, an effort in Iowa that cost his campaign $1.5 million in 2007, is in line with what advisers have said will be a more disciplined Romney campaign, focused on winning the nomination with an economic message and allocating campaign dollars for the long haul.
"The campaign is making a smart decision to not compete in the upcoming series of straw polls," Brian Kennedy, Romney's Iowa steering committee chairman and a former state GOP chairman, said in a statement. "Mitt's focus is on winning the nomination, not the straw polls."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a national GOP poll leader in early 2007, opted not to compete in the Iowa straw poll after reconsidering his stake in the caucuses, where his moderate social positions clashed with the state's evangelical, conservative base. McCain, who also led in early 2007 GOP national polls, opted out as well, although the decision involved the Arizona senator's shaky campaign finances.
Romney's decision could raise expectations for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has arrayed a robust and seasoned Iowa campaign staff, including Romney's 2007 straw poll planner. Pawlenty must win or do very well in the caucuses to have a chance at the nomination. Pawlenty's campaign affirmed his plan to compete in the Iowa straw poll after Romney's decision was announced.
"There are many, many presidential candidates that need to demonstrate organizational strength and support in Iowa, and the straw poll will be the place to do it," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said.
Iowa's straw poll is the best-known of the many non-binding popularity contests held in early-nominating states. Iowa's has grown in 30 years from a small event of about 1,400 to a pre-caucus summer festival that draws thousands of participants and a contingent of national media to Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum.
Straw polls can create buzz for little-known candidates, fuel fundraising efforts and stir up activists in early-voting states, including in South Carolina, which is known for a series of county-level GOP straw polls.
Critics say the events are stacked toward well-funded campaigns that can afford to buy blocs of tickets and ferry their supporters to the events.
Iowa Republican Party officials have pushed back against criticisms that its event is a money grab by the Iowa Republican Party. Candidates bid thousands of dollars for plots on the coliseum grounds to erect tents to feed and entertain supporters. The 2007 straw poll cost the state GOP roughly $600,000. Party officials also have lowered the ticket price by $5 to $30 since 2007.
"The notion that the straw poll is seven-figure windfall to the Republican Party of Iowa is simply not accurate. We hope to generate income and have money left over and organize for 2012," Strawn said.
Iowa's has had the effect of stamping front-runners and drive up expectations, as they did for George W. Bush with his victory at Ames in August 1999; likewise with Romney after his all-out effort in 2007.
But Iowa's straw poll also can hobble a candidate who does not meet expectations, as it did for then-Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in 2007. And only twice in the four Iowa straw polls since the meager 1979 turnout has the eventual caucus winner won.
Mike DuHaime, who managed Giuliani's campaign, said other candidates need more than Romney does the lift a straw poll victory can create.
"It can help create the perception of a serious, national candidate. Most people already believe that about Gov. Romney," said DuHaime. "Why go out and spend a lot of money for something that doesn't carry with it something tangible?'