Monday Morning Quarterback: Endless Summer in Iowa

Mid-August is when the movie studios tend to release their troubled films, or films that don't generally fit into their evolving plans. In other words, the dog days of summer. It used to be the same in presidential politics, with little of any interest going on. But that was before the permanent campaign.

The political week ahead will, of course, end early next Sunday with yet another presidential debate. This time it's the Democrats, who are having way too many of these things, in Des Moines, Iowa.

But before that, John Edwards will do his darndest to defend the state he staked out as his own after he and John Kerry narrowly lost the 2004 election to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. He's viewed the Iowa caucuses as his best chance for an early win this time out, and has spent more time there than anyone. But his longtime lead is now under serious challenge.

Before getting to Edwards' big Iowa stand this week, there's the matter of fall-out from the Iowa Republican straw poll on Saturday, and of scheduling of the early contests in the wake of the move by South Carolina Republicans to take their presidential primary from February 2 to January 19. Some say that will make for a scramble among the other earliest states -- Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire -- that will end with first-in-the-nation Iowa going before Christmas. But Iowa Governor Chet Culver, a Democrat, says that won't happen. How those states sort out their schedules now -- it's currently Iowa on January 14, Nevada on January 19, and New Hampshire on January 22 -- will be very important to watch this week.

Then there is the matter of the comings and goings in the Republican presidential field. Fred Thompson is on his third campaign manager and he hasn't announced his candidacy yet. Word is now he will announce next month, shortly after Labor Day. Will people buy his latest political reorganization? Given that Labor Day is a few weeks away, this is a key week for the fledgling Thompson campaign.

Then there is the Iowa straw poll fall-out. Or, more particularly, those falling out after the Iowa straw poll. Former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson already dropped out of the presidential race, late today while I was writing this, after finishing sixth yesterday in Ames. He raised less than $500,000 in the second quarter, hardly enough to fund a Senate race in a medium-sized state.

One or more of the other candidates may follow suit shortly.

San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, for example, who got a couple hundred votes, may well fold up his pup tent and go home. He was a big wheel when the Republicans ran Congress, chairing the House Armed Services Committee. But he's going nowhere in this presidential race.

What was this event that is at last helping to thin a too large field? It's basically a big fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, in that it costs $35 to vote. Campaigns, like the Mitt Romney campaign -- he's the one who won -- pay for many of the tickets.

None of Romney's major opponents participated - Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or John McCain - so the former Massachusetts governor, who has spent millions already in Iowa, was free to bulldoze the also-rans of the field. Which, in a way, he did. Romney won 31.6% of the vote. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was second with 18%, while Kansas Senator Sam Brownback was third with 15%. The 24,000 who participated in the previous contested straw poll, in 1999 were nowhere near matched by the numbers yesterday, as only 14,200 took part. Reports from a variety of sources say that Romney simply outspent the also-rans who contested the straw poll by a massive amount.

Still, Romney has the lead in Iowa, and a win is a win, especially with Giuliani viewed there as a social liberal, McCain melted down again, and Fred Thompson slow off the mark and still untested.

John Edwards will defend his longtime Iowa lead on the Democratic side in dramatic fashion this week. He spends the week leading up to next Sunday's Democratic debate in Des Moines doing a week-long bus tour of the Hawkeye State. His campaign says he will appear at more than 30 events this week, crisscrossing the state he simply has to win to be a viable contender for the Democratic nomination against superstars Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the steadily rising Bill Richardson.

Indeed, Obama and Clinton have caught Edwards in a recent Iowa poll. An ABC poll earlier this month had it Obama 27%, Clinton 26%, and Edwards 26%. Edwards formerly had a sizable lead there. So this week will be critical for him. I tend to think that Edwards' fate in Iowa hinges at least as much on things are going elsewhere for him and his competitors, but a campaign works on what it can best control, when and where it can.