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Approaching Ames

The Ames Straw poll is now just days away. And, while three of the four leading Republican contenders -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- have signaled they will not participate in the traditional early organizational test, they could have a significant impact on the ultimate outcome.

Why? Because, even thought they're not attending the event their names will appear on the ballot. And, according to a new KCCI survey former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) leads in Iowa with 25 percent followed by Thompson at 14 percent, Giuliani at 13 percent and McCain at 10 percent.

The fact that the no-shows names appear on the ballot and that they appear to have significant chunks of support in the state lends itself to speculation that any (or all) of the campaigns are making quiet pushes in Iowa in hopes of making a surprise showing in the straw poll. Can you imagine the press Giuliani would receive if he placed second or third at Ames while not even trying? How about a McCain rebirth, starting with a top 5 showing in the Straw poll?

All three campaigns insist they are doing absolutely nothing to run an under-the-radar campaign at Ames. And, we believe them. But, we can't help but make a few observations.

First, Giuliani has drastically stepped up his game in Iowa, announcing a series of endorsements from across the state and launching radio ads in the state that tout his accomplishments as mayor and begin to outline his "Twelve Commitments." Giuliani also moved K.C. Jones, his Midwest political director, to Iowa to serve as his state director at the beginning of July.

Those moves, according to the Giuliani campaign are based solely on a previous plan to begin organizing for next year's caucuses and have absolutely nothing to do with a secret Ames strategy. "We will fight for every Republican vote in Iowa and continue to believe we will be well-positioned to win the caucus," said Giuliani communications director Katie Levinson.

Thompson, meanwhile, has installed Randy Enwright, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, at the top of his campaign; Andrew Dorr, the midwest political director for Thompson, also has extensive Iowa experience having served as political director for then Rep. Jim Nussle's (R-Iowa) gubernatorial race in 2006 and as a member of George W. Bush's Iowa caucus operation in 2000. If there's a way to play without playing in Iowa, that duo likely know it. A surprise Thompson showing would also take oxygen out of the storyline that the former Senator's campaign is struggling to get off the ground, beset by staff departures and underwhelming financial showings.

While McCain's campaign is still trying to reassert itself after the vast majority of his senior staff resigned, he, too, is a factor at Ames -- thanks to fellow candidate Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.). As first reported by CNN, Brownback's campaign is calling McCain supporters to ask them to back the Kansan since their guy is not actively participating. It's an interesting strategy and one that makes interpreting meaning from the results all the more difficult.

The reality is that any of the three non-participating campaigns would love a top five finish -- whether or not they admit it or make a direct play for it. It would give them something for (nearly) nothing, a rare opportunity in politics.

The honest truth is no one really knows what the Straw poll will look like when three of the four leading candidates are not actively participating in it. It's never happened before. We'll be watching and wondering what it all means before, during and after the vote.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 31, 2007; 9:52 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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