Into the Great Wide Open: GOP Race for Iowa Still Up for Grabs


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."

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