Iowa Poll Position: Tea Leaves or Muddy Water?

A few weeks ago, former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was in danger of falling into the second tier of Republican presidential candidates.

In state and national polls, Romney was running behind a pair of men who weren't even in the race, and his stellar first-quarter fundraising numbers were already a distant memory.

That all changed over the weekend, and Romney has only a poll to thank.

Critical State Poll Puts Romney on Top

A Des Moines Register poll released Monday pegged Romney as getting the support of 30 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., grabbing 18 percent and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani getting 17 percent.

"It comes at a good time for Romney," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "This suggests that the amount of time he's put in the state, the amount of advertising he's run on television, has had some impact."

Candidates love to say they don't care about polls, but the truth is more complicated.

Polls are just snapshots that can't predict much this long before voting begins, but they drive news coverage and give candidates the allure of electability that can in turn propel fundraising.

Edwards Retains Top Poll Position, Richardson Scores Double Digits

On the Democratic side, the Register poll confirmed recent surveys that have shown former Democratic Sen. John Edwards in front of the field, followed closely by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

But fourth place was a bit of surprise -- it is clearly occupied by Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who formally announced his presidential candidacy Monday in Los Angeles.

His support among 10 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers put him squarely at the top of the second tier.

"There's a top tier, and Richardson is maybe making a run at cracking that group," Squire said.

Power of Advertising

The poll appears to confirm the power of early advertising.

The only three candidates to have aired television ads before polling began fared well in the poll: Edwards, Romney and Richardson.

Romney is also likely benefiting from a wave of positive news coverage, including two strong debate performances, a favorable "60 Minutes" profile and an appearance on the cover of Time magazine.

For Romney, the results also speak to the strong organization he has built in the Hawkeye State. With 16 paid staff members on the ground in Iowa, Romney has focused intensely on the state, making nine trips so far.

"The more they see of him, the more they like him," said Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman. "We're not focused on polls as much as we're focused on our grass-roots organization. We're focused on the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of what works in Iowa."

But a boost in the polls helps build an organization -- and lifts a campaign's morale.