How'd you like that one-two punch, Mitt? None of the attacks at Tuesday night's debate had the same sting as yesterday's back-to-back decisions by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to skip the Ames straw poll. Now, an event that the Mitt Romney's camp saw as a springboard to the nomination will be an over-hyped country fair where the former Massachusetts governor may as well be facing the prettiest hog in a beauty contest.
Read another way -- and this is how the Romney campaign is casting it -- the moves suggest that Giuliani and McCain are afraid of the well-funded, attractive candidate who is miles ahead of the rest of the field in Iowa organizing. That is almost certainly true, but their decision to bypass the Iowa GOP's Aug. 11 preference poll (and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., now has the excuse he needs to skip it as well) severely diminishes the importance of the single biggest event on Romney's 2007 calendar.
Romney wanted to follow George W. Bush, whose 1999 straw-poll victory catapulted him to national prominence. Now, the scary model could be another Texan, Phil Gramm, who used his deep pockets to buy a 1995 tie for first and then went precisely nowhere.
As for the broader Iowa implications, Giuliani still faces extreme skepticism from socially conservative Hawkeye State caucus-goers, and McCain has his own problems with the base over immigration and taxes. Skipping Ames won't do them any favors with the GOP faithful. "No candidate in the straw poll's nearly 30 year history has bypassed the event and won the caucuses," notes Tom Beaumont of the Des Moines Register.
All of the candidates can recite the sad roll call of recent candidates who've charted paths that avoid Iowa -- Joe Lieberman and Wes Clark from 2004, and McCain himself in 2000, who came to regret his decision and is playing in Iowa this time around. Nobody's doing that yet -- Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime said the former mayor is still "100 percent" committed to winning the caucuses, though that's not quite true if he's skipping Ames. Still, DuHaime "dismissed speculation that this move means Giuliani cannot win Iowa, saying such a notion is part of the same conventional wisdom that pooh-poohed Giuliani's chances to begin with, given his liberal positions on social issues," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. OK, but that's sort of the point.
Romney responded to the next last night in New Hampshire, where -- conveniently -- he was the only one of the Big Three at a GOP fund-raising dinner. "The head of the Republican Party of Iowa, said 'I guess they saw the handwriting on wall,' " Romney said, per Politico's Jonathan Martin "They're going to see more handwriting on the wall like that." http://www.politico.com/blogs/jonathanmartin/0607/Romney_uses_New_Hampshire_dinner_to_tout_.html (Iowa GOP chair Ray Hoffman gave the "handwriting on the wall" line to The Note's "Sneak Peak" on Wednesday.)
Also in the news:
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is set to eclipse her own quarterly fund-raising record of $26 million by at least $1 million in the second quarter of this year, reports Ian Bishop of the New York Post. "But rival Barack Obama is likely to raise even more," Bishop writes. Thus begins the next round of the financial expectations dance -- all candidates have an incentive to downplay their own targets and raise the bar for their opponents.