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Grasping at straws

June 15, 2007 |  5:00 am

Rudy Giuliani, who rocked the world of Iowa Republican politics last week by pulling out of the traditional Ames straw poll in August, has now decided to participate in an ABC-TV debate there on Aug. 5. Just as John McCain followed the former mayor's lead and also pulled out of the straw poll, McCain and the other prominent GOP candidates are now likely to join the ABC debate.

Giuliani has less of a ground operation than his competitors in the Hawkeye state and McCain's struggling campaign is now downplaying fundraising expectations for the second quarter. A televised debate reaches many more people for free than a dusty county fair straw poll.

Political straw polls are expensive to bus in and buy tickets for your supporters to pack the ballot boxes. And straw polls are absolutely meaningless--unless you win one.

Still, they provide priceless publicity (especially for no-name candidates) and are a concrete measure of a candidate's on-the-ground organizational abilities. Which is why George W. Bush, with short preparation time and against the advice of some advisors, assigned Ken Mehlman to go after an Ames straw poll victory in 1999 and won it.

Giuliani and McCain said they left this summer's straw poll to save money for other activities. And straw polls are silly.

The real reason: They saw Mitt Romney coming. He's been up with ads in Iowa for months, built a solid team there, has the money to bus in sufficient supporters and leads the polls. Other than that McCain and Giuliani had a real chance of grasping at straws.

Winning the Ames straw poll certainly doesn't guarantee victory in the Iowa caucuses the following January. Pat Robertson knows that. But overlooked in most of the news coverage of the McCain/Giuliani decisions was another historical fact. No Republican has ever won the Iowa caucuses without first competing in Ames.

Let's check back on this come January.

--Andrew Malcolm