Two months from now, the eyes of the political world will be squarely on Iowa, the first state to cast votes in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination -- and this year the fight for the Hawkeye State is anything but predictable.
Look no further than the fact that the two frontrunners for the GOP nod have spent far less time on the ground there than their rivals. While Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have opted to focus on other early states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, the second-tier of Republican candidates, including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have logged far more hours courting voters in Iowa.
"The race in Iowa right now is important because it's a jump ball and anyone can grab it," said Craig Robinson, who heads up TheIowaRepublican.com, in an interview this week.
A new CNN/TIME/ORC poll released Wednesday showed Romney -- who has largely ignored the Hawkeye State in this campaign -- ahead of Cain in Iowa, 24 percent to 21 percent, with Paul at 12 percent and Perry tied with Newt Gingrich at 10 percent. That was similar to an Oct. 11 poll from NBC News and Marist that had Romney with a 23 percent to 20 percent lead over Cain among likely GOP caucus-goers. Paul came in third at 11 percent, with Perry and Bachmann tied at 10 percent.
Despite the slim advantage that the former Massachusetts governor holds over Cain in these polls, the Tea Party plays a prominent role in Iowa and, at the moment, the businessman Cain is far better-liked than Romney within that group.
"I view it almost as a four-person race here," Robinson said. "There are four campaigns that are actually on the ground working in Iowa: Perry, Bachmann, Paul and Santorum. Romney is a factor in it, but unless he engages noticeably in Iowa, I think you'll start to see some of his support start to fade. I think that's the risk he takes with his strategy."
"Since Romney isn't playing here, it really shifts the dynamics of things," he added. "Whereas in other states maybe Perry is seen as the kind of outside challenger, in Iowa I think he is going to play as more like an establishment candidate. He's going to have a lot of resources, he's going to run a campaign that looks and feels like a front-running campaign, and I think that tells the voter, 'Look, I have everything it takes to win this nomination and go up against Obama.' If he can turn things around -- which I kind of think he is doing right now -- I think he can be strong come caucus-time."
In fact, just this week Perry launched a $175,000 ad buy in Iowa, his first television ads of this campaign cycle.
On the other hand, if Romney somehow manages to win Iowa, that could spell the beginning of the end of the Republican race, Robinson said, especially because Romney has thus far focused on other states.
"If Romney wins Iowa and then goes on to win New Hampshire, it is going to basically knock out most of his conservative challengers, money is going to pour in for him, and he's basically going to have it won," he said.
At one of his rare forays into Iowa -- an event in Sioux City last week -- Romney said, "I want to get the support of the good people of Iowa. I want to win in Iowa."