When the rest of the country is focusing on the economy, will Republicans in other states take their lead from the outcome of an eccentric process that has been dominated by social conservatives? And as the GOP looks to defeat an African American president who mobilized record numbers of young and minority voters four years ago, how relevant are the preferences of 200,000 or so caucusgoers in a rural state that is overwhelmingly white and significantly older than average?
Some of the leading presidential contenders, who have invested little in the state so far, appear to be hoping that the answer is not all that much — increasing the anxiety that Iowa Republicans feel about their place in the political firmament.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) has been practically begging the candidates to engage.
“This is a state where you can effectively launch a campaign, and it’s not too late,” he said this month after the 2008 Iowa winner, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, announced he was not running in 2012. “I just want to make it clear that we’re wide open for all the candidates.”
But of the candidates taken most seriously by the Republican establishment, only Tim Pawlenty appears to be making much of an effort in Iowa at this point. And he has a leg up by virtue of being the former governor of neighboring Minnesota.
Iowa Republicans were looking for affirmation Friday, when Mitt Romney, widely regarded as the front-runner for the nomination, made his first visit of the presidential cycle. By this point four years ago, Romney had been to the state well over a dozen times and was already running television ads.
Romney, who will be making Thursday’s official announcement of his campaign in New Hampshire, is leery of making that kind of Iowa commitment again.
The former Massachusetts governor hasn’t even committed to a late-summer straw poll that is often seen as a crucial part of the process.
“As to the tactics of a campaign and where you devote your financial resources and your time resources, that’s something we’ll figure out as we go along,” he said.
Romney spent $10 million and won the straw poll in August 2007 — and ended up losing Iowa to Huckabee. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who pretty much ignored the state and came in fourth, went on to trounce Huckabee and Romney in the primaries and win the nomination.
The uncomfortable fact for Iowa Republicans is that their cherished caucuses have rarely been much of a launching pad. Since the party held its first one to pick a president in 1976, there have been only two instances in which a winner who was not an incumbent has gone on to take the GOP nomination. And only one of those, George W. Bush in 2000, won the White House.