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The Ames Futures Market

By Reid Wilson

The expectations have been set. The barbeque has been ordered. The Elvis impersonators are on their way. Today, in short, marks the most important event of the 2008 Republican presidential nominating process thus far. And while the stock market has had a rough ride in recent weeks, one, it is said, can make money in both a bear and a bull market. In that spirit, here's a quick run down of what stocks to buy and sell - in no particular order - as GOP voters cast their straw poll ballots at Iowa State University:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: Selling. Yes, he'll likely win today's event. But with Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain taking a pass, his biggest rivals actively participating in the event are Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, or maybe Tom Tancredo. With competition like that -- candidates who, for better or worse, are simply not on the national radar -- Romney may learn when a win isn't really a win. But don't put your eggs all in this basket. With Romney buses reportedly leaving in the morning from all 99 of Iowa's counties, it is distinctly possible that he could win by a wider margin than President Bush did in 1999. Still, comparisons to Steve Forbes' overly huge play for a win in Ames keep running through our minds.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: Buying. Today marks Giuliani's low point. It is doubtful that he will finish last. As one Iowa Republican noted yesterday to his lady friend, it may not matter much to Iowans that Giuliani doesn't have the greatest pro-life record. The gentleman was overheard to say, "Yeah, but he's electable." In Iowa, where the caucus-going population pays more attention to politics than any other electorate, save perhaps New Hampshire's, electability matters. And with low expectations going into a straw poll in which he is not participating, along with signs that his campaign is beginning to play in Iowa, Giuliani has nowhere to go but up.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee & Kansas Senator Sam Brownback: Buying. But don't be afraid to dump these two stocks very quickly. The sense around Iowa is that only one can "win," or at least meet expectations. Both candidates are playing to a very socially conservative base that would ordinarily propel one of them to a strong showing. But the problem has always been that there are two candidates running, not one. Anecdotally, Huckabee resonates more with Iowa Republicans, who like his almost-understated style. By the same token, Brownback is more organized, is running buses to Ames, and seems to have the stronger field organization (including a team not of interns, but of "externs," a definition of which will hopefully be forthcoming). In essence, if you're buying Tancredo, stay away from these two. If you're taking a pass on the congressman, hedge your bets by picking both of these guys. Huckabee has the most to lose; a poor finish and his campaign could be over. Brownback, one concludes, has the funds necessary to soldier on.

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo: Buying. Tancredo is putting money into organizing for the straw poll, which would help if he had some kind of ideological following. And as THE candidate most significantly tied to anti-illegal immigration efforts, Tancredo has that following. Of everyone in the field, it is Tancredo, with low national expectations, who could come out as the big winner in Ames, buoying himself not to the top tier in Iowa but certainly above everyone not named Mitt, Rudy, or Fred.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson: Selling. And fast. By continuing to espouse his strong belief that he will finish second in the poll, even as his campaign team tries to positively spin a "top half" finish, Thompson is undercutting any hope he has of continuing if he doesn't place right behind Romney. And even after a 20-day tour around Iowa that took him to more than 100 cities, Thompson remains shaky in front of a crowd (he called himself the "father of welfare" yesterday, as just one example). Unless the Fed can somehow loan him $38 billion, Thompson may not be on stage for the next GOP debate.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul: Buying. We know we'll get a thousand emails about this, but any time one tries to apply any sort of metrics to the Paul campaign, it looks bad for Dr. No. The lone exception is money: He's got some of it, and he's spending it at a rate that would make even Mr. Scrooge feel jealous. But that's a benefit to the Paul campaign. With no noticeable move in the polls (not including easily manipulated internet polls), he goes in to Ames with no expectations. Anything that happens for him is a win.

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson: Buying. For much the same reason Giuliani is a good bet, Thompson will likely grab a significant vote tally. Rightly or wrongly, people think he's electable, and many see him as a conservative White Knight. A one-and-a-half term former senator with a not-really-campaign at 18.7%, good for second place in the latest RCP National Average? Well, he'll have some devotees, and even without effort, he'll beat out most of the second-tier candidates. The real question is whether the next-day stories will include his name.

Arizona Senator John McCain: Selling. Iowans just don't like John McCain. Eight years after blowing them off for their New Hampshire brethren, McCain squandered an early lead in Iowa by unofficially blowing them off again - until he made his neglect official by skipping the straw poll. McCain may still have his shot in New Hampshire, but his Iowa campaign is low on the totem pole.

California Congressman Duncan Hunter: Selling. Much like Tommy Thompson, Hunter should be doing better. He's got interesting ideas and a different outlook than many of the candidates. But he's old-school, a reminder of when many Americans knew which senator or congressman chaired important committees like Hunter's Armed Services post. And while he's sharper on the stump than Thompson, he is arguably the most pro-war Republican in a year in which even Republicans are starting to back away from President Bush's war.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: Selling. Why include Newt? His name won't be on the ballot, but the Georgian will have a table set up to sell his new book. He was at the State Fair today, and while he seems to be keeping his name out there to sell books and generate interest in his September event, it seems less and less likely that he will get in the race. The hiring, by Fred Thompson, of Rich Galen, one of Gingrich's most trusted advisors, and Gingrich's own dinner with Mr. Law and Order, indicate that Gingrich may be hoping that Fred carries the conservative water for him. Gingrich would bring a whole new debate to the field, but his open contempt for the process probably means he'll be cheering from the sidelines.

Of course, the market is unpredictable. Today could bring a surprise outcome, and if it does, RCP will be there to cover it. And, as any responsible stock picker will tell you, consider your risks and objectives, and always consult your financial planner.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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