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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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That Was Subtle, John

I guess the senior senator from Arizona was looking for a chance to extricate himself from Ames, which he did shortly after Giuliani withdrew. Was that more subtle, less subtle, or as subtle as Hillary Clinton's vote on the Iraq supplemental last month?

Well - now we know that it must be Romney that both Giuliani and McCain are afraid of in Iowa.

This will diminish the value of an Ames victory, which now will now almost assuredly go to Romney. But I would disagree with Chris Cillizza, who argues on The Fix:

With three out of the four frontrunning candidates likely bypassing the straw poll (only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains committed to it), the ultimate results will carry nearly no significance. It also sets up a break with tradition, as no candidate in the past three decades who has skipped the straw poll has gone on to win the Iowa caucuses.

The test of Ames is a test of organization, right? So, if McCain and Giuliani are dropping out, what does that imply? It implies that they do not expect to have the organization to compete with Romney in advance of Ames. Thus, Romney wins Ames - and reaps its principal benefit, proof of organizational supremacy - regardless of whether Giuliani and McCain actually compete. His win might not mean as much insofar as it will not be as splashy when it actually happens, and it will not give him as much of a boost in the polls (was Ames going to do that, anyway?). However, the message sent to political elites and Iowans alike is precisely the same: Romney is ready to compete with his opponents, and his opponents are not yet ready to compete with him. There are still a lot of benefits accruing to Romney, even if they are not as plentiful as they otherwise would have been.

And, what is more, if his benefits have diminished, his costs have diminished at least as much. Think of it: Romney gets the advantage of strutting his organizational stuff without spending nearly as much money to do it. So, the benefits are a little less, for sure. But so also are the costs. I think this might net out on the positive side for Romney.

The real losers are the second-tier candidates, none of whom will have an opportunity to finish ahead of one of the first tier candidates (assuming that nobody beats Romney). Too bad for them.

Like I said, I am feeling bullish about Romney of late. He leads our polling averages for both New Hampshire and Iowa. If he wins both of those primaries, and finishes at least in second in Nevada, the whole nation will have a week to sit and stew on these developments before Florida. I have been a skeptic, but there is something about his campaign that both the Giuliani and McCain campaigns seem to lack.

-Jay Cost