Politically speaking, this state is in something of an existential crisis.

For the past nine presidential elections, Iowa has reveled in the attention it gets with its position at the front of the presidential nominating contest. This time around, the question is not just who will win the Iowa caucuses but also whether it will matter.

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.

Does being first matter?

State GOP Chairman Matthew N. Strawn disputes the notion that Iowa Republicans are out of touch with the issues driving the political dialogue in other parts of the country. He suggests that a candidate with a strong economic message will find an eager audience here.

“There are those, mostly from outside our borders, who suggest that we are simply not representative of America, nor even Republicans in general,” Strawn said in a speech Thursday night at a GOP dinner in Des Moines. “To suggest that Iowa Republicans don’t care about exploding deficits, rising fuel and food costs, job-killing regulatory uncertainty, wasteful stimulus spending and shameful demagoguery on entitlement reform is dead wrong. Actually to suggest that we don’t care about those defining issues for America is as wrong as it is offensive.”

Most grating to Iowa Republicans have been the snide comments from their fellow early state, New Hampshire, which has a more conventional primary election.

In a recent column for the New Hampshire Union Leader that was reprinted in the Des Moines Register, former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen wrote that important issues don’t get debated in Iowa, because “three quarters of the audience wears tinfoil hats.”

“Iowa Republicans didn’t set out to marginalize themselves, but it’s happened — to New Hampshire’s benefit,” Cullen added. “With several major candidates likely to bypass Iowa, and the odds rising that Iowa’s skewed caucus electorate could support candidates with limited general election appeal, the likelihood of New Hampshire being called upon to make a correction” increases.

For all the quirkiness of a contest that requires voters to venture into a frigid night and then spend hours arguing with their neighbors, it does have its virtues. The fact that running in Iowa requires every candidate to campaign from living room to living room means that little-known and underfunded hopefuls have a shot at getting their names into the mix.

And Iowa can also be a proving ground, as it was four years ago for Sen. Barack Obama’s premise that he could bring new voters into the process. Obama won because those younger than 30 participated in the Democratic caucuses at the same rate as those older than 65 — something that had never happened before — and his victory in Iowa foreshadowed the remainder of his march to the White House.

GOP officials say that some of that potential for overturning the conventional wisdom exists on their side this time, if a candidate has the right message. Republican turnout in last year’s gubernatorial primary was almost 230,000, nearly double the number who participated in the presidential caucuses two years before. The winner was former governor Branstad, the establishment pick and the more moderate choice.

Romney’s quandary

At his first stop Friday, Romney chatted with Joe and Shelley Laracuente, the owners of an agriculture software business in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb. The couple had supported him in 2008, but Joe Laracuente told reporters he wasn’t sure he would again.

“I know where I’m leaning,” he said, adding that he likes Romney’s pro-business message of less government regulation. But he said his decision is contingent in part on whether Romney makes a serious play in Iowa. “There’s more candidates coming through town. . . . It’s very important for him to be here in Iowa.”

Later that day, Romney stopped by a GOP picnic inside Dwight Hughes’s barn in Fairfax, one of the western Iowa areas where Romney’s performance was strongest in his last run. The visit was a sort of homecoming for a man who had spent so many days eating hot dogs and butter cake at gatherings like this in the lead-up to 2008.

Hughes offered Romney a hayride in his horse-drawn carriage, but the former governor demurred. Asked later whether he was a Romney supporter this time, Hughes said only, “I’m a horseman — just a horseman.”

Some Romney supporters in Iowa say they would understand if he turns elsewhere.

John Strong, 69, a retired Army veteran and Republican activist from West Des Moines, gave the former Massachusetts governor an Iowa license plate that read “ROMNEY.” But Strong said Romney would be “wise by not prioritizing Iowa so much, because of the far-right influence here.”

“I think he’s got a good chance of beating Obama,” he added, “but the problem here is to win in Iowa you’ve got to go too far to the right, and it will hurt him in the national election.”

The overall direction of Republican politics in Iowa has swung rightward on social issues, even since the last presidential election. Conservatives were galvanized in part by a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. They defeated three justices last year in retention elections.

One factor, however, could work in favor of Romney or some other GOP establishment figure this time. Where Huckabee had the religious conservative vote almost entirely to himself in 2008, there is likely to be stiff competition that will divide that constituency in 2012.

Pawlenty is an evangelical Christian, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin could have strong appeal with religious voters as well if she decides to run. Also hoping to light a fire with grass-roots conservatives is former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who drew healthy crowds in Iowa even as his campaign stumbled out of the gate this month.

On the same day that Romney was cautiously testing his reception in several spots where he ran well four years ago, tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was making her way through the state. GOP activists say she has been getting an enthusiastic reception. She also is likely to pick up the endorsement of a close ally, Rep. Steve King, who represents the state’s most conservative district and whose backing is considered at least as important as the governor’s.

“We’re all in agreement that [Obama] has got to go. The question is which tough hombre — or hombre-ette — will take on our president in 2012,” Bachmann said at a GOP luncheon outside Davenport. “And this is what I know. I know we need to have a strong, bold, constitutional conservative who has a record of doing what they say.”

Hosting the event in his capacity as Scott County GOP finance chairman was Brian Kennedy, a former state party chairman who the day before had announced he was signing up to lead Romney’s Iowa effort.

“Right now, she seems to have some traction. But it’s very fluid. Two weeks from now, it could be Herman Cain or Rick Santorum,” he said, referring to the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and the former Pennsylvania senator.

In Iowa, all things are possible. What happens from there, however, is an entirely different story.