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A Slap in the Face to Iowa Republicans!

Anyone familiar with the presidential nominating process in either party knows that the "early states" are extremely sensitive about their status and influence. That's particularly true of "first in the nation caucus" Iowa and "first primary state" New Hampshire. These states have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain their position, to the point of threatening to move their contests into the year prior to the general election if necessary, and generally thundering against candidates who think they can win by skipping ahead to other states.

On the Republican side, Iowa's status is enhanced by the ritual of the GOP Straw Poll, traditionally held in the college town of Ames (a quick drive from Des Moines) the summer before the elections (on August 13 this year), which has become the first reportable contest of the cycle and an event that often purges weak candidates from the field.

Iowa Republicans are anxious about the credibility of the Straw Poll, not just because it draws unique attention to the state, but because it is their major fundraiser for the cycle (attending the Straw Poll costs $30, with most of the tickets paid for and distributed by presidential campaigns; other money is raised by auctioning off sites for candidate HQs, typically huge air-conditioned tents). And so they have taken the risky strategy of publicly warning candidates that they might as well skip the Caucuses if they skip the Straw Poll. And some do: Mitt Romney, who typically runs first or second in early polls of likely Republican Caucus-goers, decided to skip the Straw Poll this time after spending a ton of money to win it in 2007, succeeding only in boosting expectations that he would win the Caucuses. When he ultimately lost to Mike Huckabee in the Caucuses, it probably damaged his candidacy more than the alternative path of forgetting about Iowa altogether.

So with Romney already giving Ames a pass, the Iowa GOP's self-esteem depends on the Straw Poll producing a viable challenger or two to Romney. There are two main threats to that happening: the possibility that a non-viable candidate will win in Ames, and the possibility that another candidate skipping the Straw Poll will emerge as a Big Dog.

As Craig Robinson, proprietor of the influential web page The Iowa Republican is demonstrating today, both these threats could soon become very real. Robinson's own handicapping of the Straw Poll predicts a narrow win for Ron Paul, a candidate nobody much takes seriously as an eventual nominee (you can read Robinson's take yourself, but the bottom line is that he thinks Michele Bachmann's organizational shortcomings in Iowa will keep her from taking full advantage of her popularity in the state, and also thinks Tim Pawlenty, who does have a strong organization, just hasn't excited local Republicans enough to get them to make the trip to Ames to support him).

Meanwhile, Rick Perry's staff has put out the word that he will say something definitive--and presumably positive--about his own presidential plans the very day of the Straw Poll--in South Carolina, at the annual gathering of right-wing activists held by the Red State web site.

This has Craig Robinson very upset:

Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to announce his candidacy in South Carolina at the same time the Iowa Straw Poll is taking place in Ames is not only a slap in the face to Republican voters in Iowa, but it also is disrespectful to the Iowa GOP and the other candidates seeking the nomination. The move makes it obvious that Governor Perry either doesn't understand the Iowa caucuses or doesn't respect the role that Iowa plays in the nominating process. We shouldn't be surprised. The candidate he endorsed for president in 2008, Rudy Giuliani, never could figure out Iowa either.... Stealing some of the media attention away from the Straw Poll and the candidates that are participating on Saturday may seem like a savvy thing to do, but it comes at a high price. Perry now risks alienating the very people he needs to support him in order to win the nomination.

In other words: we'll punish you in the Caucuses, Rick Perry, if you rain on our parade this Saturday, and don't think you're going to win the nomination by skipping Iowa altogether!

But if Ron Paul wins the Straw Poll, Pawlenty does poorly, and Bachmann falls well short of expectations, then the buzz after Ames will probably be that Romney and Perry are the front-runners for the nomination. This perception could obviously change if a nationally viable candidate wins the Caucuses and charges into New Hampshire and South Carolina with some momentum. But the scenario Iowa Republicans fear could make for a very anxious few months in the First-in-the-Nation-Caucus state--and bring joy to the hearts of political observers who think the influence of the Straw Poll is ridiculous.