Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has remained neutral in the GOP presidential primary, predicted Friday that if former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) wins the Iowa caucuses, he will win the presidency.

Is Iowa’s role in the presidential nominating process changing? (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Romney has been showing increasing confidence in his chances in the Hawkeye State; on Friday morning, he was joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at a West Des Moines rally that drew 300 supporters, and his campaign has scheduled a post-caucus rally for Tuesday night in the state rather than in New Hampshire, where Romney maintains a wide lead over his rivals.

Horse race aside, Grassley’s comments on Friday raise an interesting question, and one that has been frequently mulled by observers as the 2012 race has gone on: Is Iowa’s role in the presidential nominating process changing?

While Iowa’s tight grip on its first-in-the-nation status certainly has its share of detractors, the fact remains that the Hawkeye State has been a make-or-break state for many a candidacy.

It’s Iowa that has propelled largely-unknown candidates such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) onto the national stage, and it’s after Iowa that many presidential hopefuls who perform lower than expected have often dropped out, effectively “winnowing the field.”

Three factors have shifted the calculus this time around: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), considered even by members of his own party to be unelectable in the general election, is in a dead heat with Romney for first place in Iowa; most of the GOP field has done less spadework than usual in the state; and the preferences of Iowa caucus-goers have tended to follow the national trends, not the other way around.

In his exchange with Grassley Friday morning, NBC’s Todd raised the issue of whether Iowa’s presidential clout may be at risk.

“If Ron Paul wins the caucuses, are you worried about the future of Iowa as first in the nation?” Todd asked.

Grassley maintained that he was not.

”Absolutely not,” he said. “Because, you know, every caucus season you hear some reason why Iowa should not be first in the nation. But let me assure you, as long as Iowa Republicans and Democrats stick together and as long as New Hampshire Republicans and Democrats stick together, and as long as Iowa and New Hampshire stick together, way into the future you’re going to have Iowa be first in the caucus and you’re going to have New Hampshire being first in the nation primary.”

Still, while the past few months have painted a very different picture of Iowa than in previous presidential races, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s surge in the final days of the contest – and make no mistake, it is a surge – represents something of a return to the state’s traditional role, giving a boost to a candidate who had yet to enjoy a national platform and who had toiled for months to build a ground game in the state.

Whether the caucuses have changed – and whether that change is a fleeting or a longer-lasting one – remains an open question.