The Iowa operative predicted that the Ames debate could make "a big difference" in the straw poll because so many people are now undecided. Romney, for instance, will attend the debate and hold a handful of events in the days leading up to it. Even if he is not officially competing in Ames, the current GOP frontrunner still has something riding on the outcome there. With the likely possibility that Texas governor Rick Perry will enter the race in the coming weeks, Romney could have an additional contender to tangle with soon, to say nothing of Sarah Palin.
Last month the Iowa State Republican Central Committee decided that Perry and Palin would not be on the ballot in Ames, but write-in votes are allowed and those votes will be made public. That means Perry could still pose a threat to Romney.
"If I'm Rick Perry's people, I go in there with a mission to beat Romney with write-ins," the Republican operative said. "If Perry can beat the straw poll winner from last time around, without speaking, without going to the debate, then that is big. And if that happens, then that's not just an Iowa problem for Romney – that's a national problem. It would show that people are clamoring for someone else."
Robinson agreed that the results in Ames have the potential to be a big boost for someone like Perry.
"I think the Ames results could be very tight, with everyone getting between 2000 and 2500 votes with really no clear winner or loser. The way this campaign is shaking out at the moment plays right into the hands of a Perry or a Romney to re-emerge in Iowa. For example, Pawlenty just released his county chairs for Iowa. He only has 29 of them. There are 99 counties in the state. That's a sign of weakness. The door is wide open for someone like Perry to come in and organize and take off after Ames."
Despite all the attention that will be showered upon Ames in the coming days, victory there is no guarantee of future success. Four years ago Romney won the straw poll, but it was Arizona Sen. John McCain – who came in 10th after not competing – who ultimately won the GOP nomination. And overall, since its founding in 1979, only two out of five winners in Ames have gone on to become the Republican nominee.
But even if Ames might not crown an eventual winner, it can spell doom for a candidate who has a dismal performance. The poll has serious financial ramifications: if donors decide on the basis of the Ames results that a candidate cannot win it all, they can stop filling his coffers with their money.
"The straw poll is really a fundraising thing," Robinson said. "Look at this year. Let's say someone like Pawlenty doesn't beat Bachmann or Paul. Well, if that happens, then his donors might decide he won't be able to beat Romney or Perry either and they won't pony up for him."