DES MOINES — At Herman Cain's Iowa headquarters, state director Larry Tuel proudly holds up a $63 check received by the campaign that morning. The wealthy give in large, round numbers. A $63 donation results from a precise determination of how much the family budget will bear. Surveying the sudden, spontaneous momentum that has made Cain the Iowa front-runner, Tuel says, "They can have the caucus tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned."
Cain's commanding position was not earned through organization. He has hardly been in the state since Iowa's Aug. 13 straw poll. His paid staff — down from six to four — is lean to the point of emaciation. Perhaps 20 or 30 Iowa volunteers make calls to prospective caucus-goers. It is a smaller political operation than some state House campaigns.
Which raises a question: Does organization — hiring field staff, rolling out endorsements, putting up yard signs — matter anymore in Iowa? Michele Bachman's effort to win the straw poll — which featured a performance by Randy Travis — yielded precisely one day of good press coverage. Tim Pawlenty's early, heavy investment in Iowa only succeeded in raising expectations he did not meet. Four years ago, Mitt Romney had the best organization in Iowa caucus history, which did not stop the rise of Mike Huckabee.
Iowa politics has a low viscosity. About 30 percent of Iowa Republicans have flowed from Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain, seeking the anti-establishment alternative to Mitt Romney. Like his predecessors, Cain now has the chance to solidify conservative discontent. He possesses an upbeat style and a powerful personal story. But he should worry that he has peaked too soon. Ten weeks of gaffes and fog-generating clarifications is a long time in politics. "Part of the downside of getting noticed," one Iowa GOP official told me, "is getting noticed." Candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum still hope that the Republican quicksilver vote might settle next on them.
Perry — the previous conservative hope — is attempting a political recovery with traditional Iowa medicine. More than any other candidate, he is constructing a serious state organization — trying to recruit at least one representative in each of Iowa's 1,700 precincts to guide the undecided on caucus night. At an event I attended on a farm in Cedar County, Perry traveled with more campaign staff than Cain possesses in the state.
In person, Perry has political strengths not evident in his mediocre debate performances. He is easy in a small group, shaking hands with a direct look in the eye and a hand on the shoulder. His stump speech is more substantive than most of his opponents', focusing on energy policy and a flat tax. When it comes to the Second Amendment, he hunts as though he means it — an advantage in this part of the country. He has enough money to run television ads.
Perry is likely to outperform his current polling in Iowa. Unfortunately, a recent survey has him at 6 percent, making it unclear if he still belongs in the first tier of candidates. In Iowa conservative circles, his relatively moderate views on immigration weigh against him. Even more damagingly, many Iowa Republicans cringe at the prospect of a Perry-Obama debate.
All of the candidates who aren't named Romney (with the exception of Jon Huntsman) have the same problem: They must unite conservatives and win Iowa.
Romney, in contrast, only has to place to meet expectations. And he is well positioned. His support seems solid in the low to mid 20s, comprised mainly of regular Republicans unlikely to flee to alternatives. His policy vulnerabilities are considerable but already well known. His religious background provides some benefits. Iowa's Mormon community is small — Romney's campaign estimates about 17,000 of voting age — but they are committed and likely to turn out on a raw evening.
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And though Romney is much lighter on the ground in Iowa this time than last — he skipped the straw poll and has rationed his appearances in the state — he has the advantage of a pre-existing political structure. His lavish, unsuccessful campaign of four years ago left a network of loyalists. "It hasn't taken much," says a Romney operative, "to get the band back together." So maybe there is a benefit to building an Iowa political organization — if only for future use when expectations are lower.
Iowa's political drama will focus on where the Republican quicksilver vote finally gathers. But it is Romney's strategy — bland and implacable — that may carry the night.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.