Just two months before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses officially kick off the Republican presidential race, an eagerly awaited Des Moines Register poll shows a virtual tie for the lead, with businessman Herman Cain at 23 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 22 percent. Their nearest rival is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who polls at 12 percent. The race's other Texan, Gov. Rick Perry, clocks in at 7 percent, while this summer's Ames straw poll winner, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), is at 8 percent. Of course, the race is still fluid — particularly after Sunday night's bombshell Politico report charging that Cain was twice accused by female employees of inappropriate "sexually suggestive behavior" in the 1990s. Still, with 71 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers saying business experience is more important than political experience, is Iowa becoming a two-man race between business candidates Romney and Cain?
Iowa is still Romney vs. "not-Romney": This poll is best summed up: "Elimination threatens several not-Romneys," says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. Cain is just the latest "main vessel for the not-Romney votes." Still, it will be hard for his rivals to "puncture the Cain bubble" before Iowans caucus. And even if Cain lacks "staying power after Iowa," he could easily end the race for Perry and other second-stringers. Romney's steady mid-20s could also be enough for "a surprise win."
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If Romney and Cain want to win, they need to show up: Right now this looks like "a two-way race at the top between largely absentee candidates," since Cain and Romney have visited Iowa a combined four times in 2011, says Jason Noble in The Des Moines Register. But 59 percent of caucus-goers are still on the fence, and you win caucuses with organization. Unless Cain and Romney make "heavier investments in a ground game," the Iowa race is still wide open.
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Iowa represents a real gamble for Romney: The former Massachusetts governor got burned badly in Iowa in 2008, when he invested heavily in the state only to get blown out by Mike Huckabee, says John Heilemann in New York. And though Romney's message to Iowa this year "hasn't quite been 'Drop dead,'" it's been pretty close. Unlike Cain, Romney doesn't need Iowa. He's focused on New Hampshire. And yet, with Iowa GOP operatives expecting Cain to implode, like Perry and Bachmann before him, Romney could plausibly win Iowa with just a little push. That would be a "knockout out blow to Perry," Romney's only real rival. But if he makes a play and loses, Romney could be humiliated and lose it all — again.
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