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."
But thus far, he has done little to do so. He declined to participate in the Iowa straw poll in August, leaving the first real test of the primary cycle to others. Bachmann seized the opening in Ames, defeating Paul by the slimmest of margins: Only 152 votes separated the two.
But across the country, it was Perry who stole the headlines on that summer weekend, announcing his entry into the race and immediately surging towards the top of the polls.
Meanwhile, since her victory in Ames, Bachmann has faded badly, plunging in the polls, making gaffe-prone comments like her quip that Hurricane Irene was God's warning to Washington politicians to rein in the budget deficit, and seeing her campaign torn apart by internal turmoil, such as last week's mass defection of her staff in New Hampshire.
"The straw poll almost feels like decades ago," Robinson said. "It's interesting. Everyone wants to equate it to Bachmann because she won it, but I think the straw poll might still be relevant because it showed us how strong Paul is. He still has his head down and is still organizing and having aggressive events across the state. While everyone wants to kind of lump the straw poll in with the troubles with Bachmann's campaign, Paul is still a force and he's organized, and that's something to keep an eye on. I think right now it's almost like the straw poll was the end of phase one of the campaign and now it's started all over. It really does have a different feel here pre-straw poll and post-straw poll."
There have only been two Ames winners who have gone on to win the nomination, and with Bachmann struggling it does not look like a third is on the horizon this year. Back in 2008, Romney won the straw poll but lost the caucuses to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had finished second in Ames. Ultimately, it was Arizona Sen. John McCain -- who came in a distant 10th in Ames after not competing in the straw poll -- who secured the Republican nomination to oppose the Democratic nominee, then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The fact that Ames this year may not be a barometer for success in the caucuses only makes the battle for Iowa all that more intriguing. With a little more than 60 days left before Iowans are casting their votes, the race is still just as fluid as it was back in the summer.
"It is completely wide open and Iowans are taking an unprecedented amount of time to come to a decision on these candidates," a top Republican operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview. "I think that's due to the fluidity of the race and the fact that the field wasn't settled until a few weeks ago. Iowans like to view the whole field before making their decisions. It's not like the first person who comes to their town wins their vote."
In addition, the nature of the Hawkeye State caucus puts an emphasis on organizational power, something that no candidate has managed to assemble just yet.
"No one has this thing locked up and it's not even close," the source said. "No one has the organization that they need in place right now to turn people out to 1,784 caucuses across the state. The newcomers to the race don't really understand that and the one person who does understand that is not fully invested here -- and that's Romney."
For instance, the candidate who has recently shot to the top of the polls, Cain, has hardly made Iowa a priority, making only occasional trips to the state. While there may be an opening for the former Godfather's Pizza CEO there because of the strong Tea Party presence, he has lagged far behind Romney and Perry in fundraising and would struggle to come up with the organizational infrastructure needed in the caucuses.
"Cain has been non-existent here," the source said. "Even if he could somehow sustain his poll numbers, he has absolutely no -- zero, zip, nada -- organization to support him."
That means there could be an opening for another candidate to emerge as the "anti-Romney alternative." In August, it appeared that person was Bachmann, but she faded. In September, it looked like Perry, but he faded. In October, it seems like Cain, but time will tell.
"I've never seen it this wide open," the GOP source added.
"Iowa is really the most wide-open state there is for an early contest," said Robinson. "It doesn't feel like anyone has this thing wrapped up. Iowa, this time, is the early state where everyone feels like they can come in and play even though it will be difficult for them. It's totally wide open."
With so little time left before votes are cast, it is shaping up to be a wild fight to the finish in Iowa. Stay tuned.