A reader e-mailed me last night with two excellent questions: If neither Mike Huckabee nor Sarah Palin runs, does Mitt Romney make a real effort in Iowa? And if he does and loses, is he “toast”?

For quite some time I predicted Romney would not run a serious campaign in Iowa. Remember that he didn’t win over critical Christian conservatives in 2008, and there is no reason why he’d do better in 2012. Working so hard in Iowa may have hurt his chances in New Hampshire in 2008. And when he lost there too, he was done for in 2008. That logic did not appear to carry the day inside the Romney camp in this campaign, and he recently announced he would compete in Iowa. Even without Huckabee and Palin in the race, Romney will face stiff competition from Tim Pawlenty and possibly from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. In fact, the departure of Huckabee and Palin may help the anyone-but-Romney voters coalesce around a single candidate. In short, I think Romney is locked into mounting a real race in Iowa, a race he could easily lose.

That brings us to the next question: Is a defeat in Iowa fatal? When the frontrunner with the most money, the biggest and most experienced staff and near-100-percent name recognition loses, it may not be a death blow, but it’s a major blow nevertheless. More important, if the winner is a credible nominee (e.g., Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels) that person becomes the chief anti-Romney opponent around whom the base may rally sooner rather than later. It is for this very reason that I thought Romney wouldn’t want to risk it all (or close to it) in Iowa.

There is one final point. Let’s say a telegenic governor of a blue state or a superstar congressman from the Midwest decides this fall to take the plunge. Such candidates would have the perfect excuse not to run in Iowa (it’s too late!), to rail against ethanol subsidies and to make their stand in New Hampshire, where fiscal issues, not to mention opposition to RomneyCare ObamaCare, will be front and center. In that case, does Romney pull out with the excuse that the latecomer isn’t going to Iowa? Maybe. But if he sticks it out in Iowa, he’ll be handing the latecomer a big advantage, namely the ability to focus on one small state that is very receptive to a message centered on fiscal restraint. Heck, if the latecomer were a successful governor who tamed a blue state or a Republican superstar who set President Obama back on his heels on ObamaCare, entitlement reform and the debt, that person could decide in December to make the run. Just saying.