Wall Street Journal
The Iowa straw poll, held in Ames, is one of the landmark events of the nominating contest. Mr. Romney's decision sends the clearest signal yet that he doesn't want to wade deeply into the social issues that carry particular weight with Iowa Republicans and instead intends to present himself to voters nationally as a successful businessman who can improve the economy.
Mr. Romney's campaign said he would still compete in Iowa's caucuses, now slated for February, 2012. But the former Massachusetts governor's absence from the Aug. 13 straw poll will likely diminish his chances, some Iowa officials say, while raising the odds that whoever wins the poll will be best positioned to claim the status as Mr. Romney's top rival for the nomination.
Mr. Romney's decision, which was disclosed to The Wall Street Journal by his aides, came as the GOP field was shaken Thursday by the resignation of top aides to another candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Gingrich's campaign manager, senior strategists and aides in early primary states all quit, a stunning rejection of the candidate by his own staff. Mr. Gingrich vowed to continue his candidacy, but his ability to rebuild a campaign organization was in doubt.
These moves open the door even wider for other candidates to vault into the top tier—even a late entry such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Mr. Romney won the Iowa straw poll during his first campaign four years ago after spending $2.5 million to rent space in Ames from the state party, bus supporters there from around the state, pay their $35 entrance fee and feed them throughout the day. But he finished second behind Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses five months later and fell short in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
In that campaign, Mr. Romney cast himself as a social conservative. But he was outflanked by Mr. Huckabee, a former pastor and Arkansas governor, who was boosted by evangelical voters, home-schooling advocates and other social-issues conservatives.
Now, Mr. Romney is building a public image based on his background as a successful private-equity investor focused on job creation. That image could be complicated if he were to try to gain favor among the conservative activists who play a large role in the straw poll.
According to 2008 election-day surveys, 60% of Iowa caucus-goers called themselves evangelical or born-again Christians. In the New Hampshire primary, the figure was 23%. In the general election that year, about a quarter of voters in both parties were evangelical Christians.
Moreover, the straw poll presents a risk to Mr. Romney: Expectations that he win likely would be high, due to his broad name recognition and status as the putative GOP front-runner. But a weak finish in the straw poll could diminish h"Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it's in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else," said Matt Rhoades, Mr. Romney's campaign manager. "We will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses."
Romney advisers insist he won't skip Iowa entirely. He plans to participate in a debate just before the straw poll that has been sanctioned by the Republican National Committee. But by missing the straw poll, Mr. Romney may alienate some Iowans. "It definitely impacts your ability to compete in the caucuses," said Doug Gross, the chairman of Mr. Romney's 2008 campaign in Iowa. "Iowa Republicans take this very personally."
Mr. Rhoades, the Romney campaign official, said: "We respect the straw poll process. In the last campaign, we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them."
Mr. Romney's decision to skip all straw polls means he will also bypass a hallmark event in Florida, called Presidency 5, that could cost campaigns about $1 million in state party fees and other expenses, according to aides for various campaigns.
With Mr. Romney bowing out of the Iowa straw poll, the pressure—and opportunity—is amplified for those who remain, particularly for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has assembled the most robust team in Iowa even as he lags in most of the early polls. His money and support could dry up if he doesn't finish in the top tier, Republican strategists say.
"Top-tier candidates can take a hit if expectations aren't properly set, while an upstart campaign may be able to vault into the top-tier with an unexpected showing," said Brian Jones, a top campaign aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008. "For underperforming tier-two candidates, Ames will be their political graveyard."
In 1999, Lamar Alexander abandoned his bid for the nomination after a poor showing in Ames. Weak performances there by Elizabeth Dole in 1999 and Sam Brownback in 2007 contributed to their decisions to drop out before the caucuses.
In 1999, George W. Bush entered the presidential contest relatively late and gained a boost by winning the Ames poll.
The straw poll is not a strong indicator of who will win the GOP nomination—or even of who will win Iowa's caucuses. In the last five competitive contests, the straw poll has picked the caucus winner three times and the GOP nominee twice.
In the 2008 election cycle, Mr. McCain skipped the Ames poll and then placed a distant third in the caucuses before going on to win the nomination.
Mr. Romney, who banked his election strategy on Iowa four years ago, chastised Mr. McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani—the two early frontrunners in the field—for bowing out of the last straw poll.
"If you can't compete in Iowa in August, how are you going to compete in January when the caucuses are held?" Mr. Romney asked in 2007.