Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may be a lonely man in Ames this summer.
The decision by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to skip the August Iowa Republican straw poll has prompted other candidates to re-evaluate their strategies with regard to the nonbinding contest.
The campaigns of former Republican Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy Thompson now say that they are considering not participating in the Ames straw poll, even though both men have previously cast the event as crucial to boosting their credibility as candidates.
"It raises the question of whether the straw poll is in fact an indicator of support of candidates in the state," said Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa campaign director.
"We're in the business of taking gambles," Woolson added. "But are you still going to have 1,000 reporters show up? I don't think so now. How important will it be if you don't have the opportunity to go head-to-head with Giuliani in Iowa? Is second place a prize if McCain and Rudy aren't there?"
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee was considered an unlikely participant even before Giuliani and McCain made their announcements. Though he's still formally undecided -- and hasn't even announced his candidacy yet -- one Thompson adviser noted that sinking valuable resources into Ames makes less sense with the two national front-runners skipping the event.
In addition, advisers to former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia say the realization that Romney is likely to dominate the straw poll convinced them to follow Giuliani and McCain in skipping Ames.
"When you think about time, staff, resources and how best to use all of that, we're coming to the conclusion that it makes sense to skip it and focus on other things," said Christian Josi, a Gilmore spokesman.
The Ames contest has long been viewed as vital in the Republican-nominating process, because of its ability to attract tens of thousands of GOP faithful to a giant political festival in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
Both Huckabee and Tommy Thompson have said they need strong showings in Ames to vault them from the second tier of candidates and into the territory of front-runners Giuliani, McCain, Romney and Fred Thompson.
But the decisions by Giuliani and McCain to forgo Ames has changed the equation for much of the field. Advisers to several GOP candidates said they're now happy to watch Romney dump millions into a contest he'll now need to win overwhelmingly just to meet the expectations that will be set for him.
"There's no point in wasting money when he's already bought the thing," said one aide to a Republican presidential candidate, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Romney campaign views it differently. They see the decision by other candidates to skip Ames as a sign that they're worried about the strong organization and fundraising machine the former Massachusetts governor has already built.
The Romney camp Wednesday provided reporters with internal polling that shows Romney in firm control in Iowa, notwithstanding national polls that place him third or fourth in the field. The campaign is pushing ahead with its plan to bus in supporters for Ames, though Romney is unlikely to spend as much money on the effort as he would have if the straw poll had more participants.
Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said that even if the other major candidates say Ames isn't important, connecting with Republican voters in Iowa will pay dividends for the campaign.
"It's the political equivalent of a full-body workout for Iowa," Madden said. "Any time and money and effort we put in there will garner us a return in January."
At least one rival campaign is still planning an aggressive push in Iowa. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., is traveling to Iowa Thursday through Monday, and he hopes his hard-line position on immigration gathers him wide support at the straw poll in the conservative state.
"We're going at it full-force in Ames, and we are expecting a strong showing by our supporters," said Alan Moore, a Tancredo spokesman. "We're arranging as much as we can to get our supporters there from all over the state."
The campaigns of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, did not immediately return calls seeking comment about their plans for Ames.
Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa director, said the campaign is waiting to see how the new landscape is perceived by the media before deciding how to proceed. "We're in that mode where we're evaluating all the information that we can get our hands on," he said.