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Iowans Feel Snubbed, but Will It Matter?

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won Iowa's Republican straw poll Saturday, but his top competitors skipped the event.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won Iowa's Republican straw poll Saturday, but his top competitors skipped the event. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 13, 2007

DES MOINES, Aug. 12 -- If there was one thing that was plain at Saturday's gathering of Republicans in Ames, Iowa, it was this: They don't like to be dissed.

The GOP throng groaned and booed at any mention of the no-shows -- former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- and warned the missing candidates that skipping the straw poll will be remembered.

"It's just like going out on a date," said Iowa GOP Chairman Ray Hoffmann. "If you want to meet someone, you have to make an effort to talk to them." As for this year's missing suitors, he added, "If they don't show up, we feel a little bit neglected."

The absence of the trio robbed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of the bragging rights from defeating them. And it raises questions about whether the candidates can get back into the good graces of voters here before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses in January.

More than that, though, their boycott of so venerable a ritual as the Ames contest strikes at a basic tenet of presidential politics: Don't mess with Iowa and New Hampshire. It also hints at a significant threat to Iowa's cherished place at the front of the nominating calendar: If most of the major candidates can ignore the straw poll with impunity, what's to stop them from doing the same with the caucus?

"I think if they thought they could have won, they'd have been here," Romney said on "Fox News Sunday." "If you can't compete in the heartland, if you can't compete in Iowa in August, how are you going to compete in January when the caucuses are held? And then how are you going to compete in November of '08?"

Romney's bravado may be a bit premature. The other major candidates insist that their courtship of Iowa voters is just beginning.

Thompson, not even a candidate yet, makes his first trip to the state on Friday. McCain's campaign manager sent an e-mail Saturday night saying, "We are fully committed to competing successfully in the Iowa caucuses, and we look forward to continuing to campaign aggressively in the Hawkeye State."

Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella said the decision to skip Ames was designed to keep the focus on winning the caucuses and not divert resources to a contest that awards no delegates to next year's Republican National Convention. "The bottom line is we are committed to Iowa," she said.

A week before the straw poll, Giuliani was asked while campaigning in the state what impact the balloting in Ames would have on the race for the GOP nomination.

"By the time we get to the caucus, it's not going to have a big impact," said Giuliani, who is returning to campaign in western Iowa on Wednesday. "Some decided to be in it, some decided to be out of it. We think ours is going to turn out to be the better strategy, to put our emphasis on the caucuses in January instead of the straw poll."

Giuliani may prove to be right, but he and the other Republicans have work to do to catch Romney in Iowa. The former governor leads in all recent scientific polls of the state, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late July. When Iowa Republicans were asked which candidate had worked hardest in their state, Romney, at 49 percent, was their overwhelming choice.


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