Political experts assess presidential race less than a month before debate, straw poll

AMES, Iowa -- Republican presidential candidates will converge on Iowa State University in just under a month for a debate in Stephens Auditorium on Thursday, Aug. 11; and the Iowa Straw Poll two days later in ISU's Hilton Coliseum. But with some candidates choosing to limit their campaigning within the state -- most notably pre-race favorite Mitt Romney -- questions linger about the significance of Iowa in the GOP race.

Because all the announced candidates plan to participate in the debate, Iowa State political experts still see plenty at stake that night.

"The debate will be important to all the candidates since the public and pundits will be able to gauge how the candidates have performed here since the earlier debate in New Hampshire," said James McCormick (left), professor and chair of political science at Iowa State. "Have the candidates grown or solidified their support?

"I would think that Michele Bachmann, whom the media identified as doing well in New Hampshire, will particularly get some scrutiny in this debate," he continued. "Can she continue to be assertive and confident in her role? Tim Pawlenty will also come under scrutiny since his New Hampshire performance was criticized by some for being unwilling to attack Mitt Romney over healthcare."

Downplaying Iowa's significance

Romney and Jon Huntsman -- the former Utah governor who served as the U.S. ambassador to China for President Obama -- are two notable candidates who appear to be bypassing Iowa in their campaign efforts. It's a calculated risk that may include an effort to diminish any results from Iowa, according to ISU Associate Professor Dave Peterson (right).

"Romney -- and to a lesser extent Huntsman -- know that they will not win the caucus," Peterson said. "The best case for Romney is to make it as unimportant as possible. Someone is going to get a bump coming out of the caucus and going into New Hampshire, and Romney's strategy is to minimize that bump as much as possible. That's why the caucus is being minimized, because the leading candidate is actively trying to mitigate its effect."

Efforts to minimize Iowa's first-in-the-nation Feb. 6 caucuses may be strengthened by Iowa Republicans continuing their move to the more social conservative right.

"If Iowa Republicans continue their path from 2008 and choose the most popular social conservative who most likely will not be able to win a national nomination, the party's relevance to the presidential nomination process will be further hindered," said Dianne Bystrom (left), director of Iowa State's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. "I expect Tea Partiers will be out in numbers at the straw poll, primarily to support Bachmann."

But can Bachmann -- the current leader in the Iowa polls and the first Republican woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota back in 2006 -- sustain her momentum to win the Iowa Straw Poll?

"Because Romney -- Bachmann's chief challenger at this time in Iowa - is not participating in the straw poll, it leaves the door wide open for her to win," Bystrom said. "Romney just needs to hope for a decent finish in the straw poll, without having a presence at the event, to keep up his lead in the national polls."

Still value to the straw poll

Even without Romney, the Iowa State experts see importance in the straw poll too.

"The straw poll will remain significant. It is, after all, the first real event of the 2012 nomination process," McCormick said. "The day-long affair in the heart of summer is exactly the kind of event the media and pundits love. Moreover, the festival atmosphere associated with the event also contributes to its prominence. Furthermore, it is the kind of event that can produce surprises, especially for lesser known candidates."

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is hoping to be one of those surprises. Pawlenty is down in the polls but investing a lot of money in hopes of making a good showing in the straw poll -- for good reason.

"The Iowa Straw Poll will be important for only a couple of the candidates: Bachmann and Pawlenty," Peterson said. "The Iowa Caucus will probably be the end of one of these campaigns, if not both.

"Generally speaking, Pawlenty is liked by all Republican voters and there aren't too many of them who would oppose him. That isn't true of any of the other candidates," he continued. "But he needs to be able to break out and get some attention and positive press. Again, the Straw Poll offers the first opportunity to do that. If he does well, then he can use that momentum to push through to the caucus."

And with the caucuses still six months away, the ISU experts agree that there's still time for other candidates -- like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- to jump into the race. But the clock is now ticking.