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Romney to skip Iowa, other straw polls

Mitt Romney is planning to forgo the Iowa Straw Poll – a political tradition that is often seen as an early barometer for testing a candidate’s organizational strength – as he continues to shift his strategy in a state that was seen as vital to his campaign four years ago.

“Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it’s in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else,’’ campaign manager Matt Rhoades said tonight in a statement.

The decision continues an approach Romney has had to try and delay the start of the presidential nominating contest, while also carefully managing his own political expectations.

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Romney spent lavishly to win the straw poll four years ago, only to raise expectations to a level he wasn’t able to match. He later lost the Iowa caucuses to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

Although Romney won’t participate in the mid-August straw poll, he is still likely to compete in the Iowa caucuses next February. But his decision to opt out of the straw poll – a process held dear by Iowa Republicans, and one that helps raise significant funds for the state party – could damage his chances by irking the party faithful.

It also goes against comments Romney himself made during his last campaign, when he was trying to goad others – such as Senator John McCain of Arizona and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – to spend more time in Iowa.

“If you’re going to participate in the Iowa process, then you better get in the straw poll,’’ he said at the time. “If you don’t think you can participate and win in Iowa in August, how are you going to win in November of ‘08?’’

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s campaign seized on the news, and implied that Romney was unwilling to face voters.

“I joined Governor Pawlenty’s campaign because I knew he could put his record before voters everywhere,’’ Matt Whitaker, chairman of Pawlenty’s Iowa steering committee, said in a statement. “The Ames straw poll is a great gathering of conservatives, and Governor Pawlenty’s solid record will be well received there. “

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But without Romney competing in the straw polls, it could diminish the meaning for the winners. Florida Republicans are also planning to hold a straw poll in September that, without Romney, will likely become less significant.

In both Florida and Iowa, there will be debates that coincide with the straw polls. Romney still intends to participate in those debates, according to statements from the Romney campaign. He also plans to participate in a conference that is timed to take place along with the Michigan straw poll.

Romney’s campaign chose to leak the news that he would not participate in the straw polls on a day when the political world was reeling from the staff defections from one of Romney’s Republican opponents, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“We respect the straw poll process,’’ Rhoades said in the statement. “In the last presidential campaign we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them. This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at [email protected]

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