In 2008, Barack Obama won an upset victory in Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, giving him major momentum in his successful run for the White House. On the GOP side, the caucuses dealt a big blow to Mitt Romney's campaign, after he finished a distant second to Mike Huckabee. This year, Romney and other top-tier GOP candidates are weighing whether to skip Iowa, and not even bother investing much time and money in the state's quirky meet-and-greet caucus system. Politically, this has left the state "in something of an existential crisis," says Karen Tumulty in The Washington Post. Has Iowa become irrelevant?

Iowa is still a crucial gatekeeper: The big knock against Iowa is that its GOP caucus-goers are too socially and religiously conservative to pick a candidate who can thrive in the general election, says Graham Gillette in The Des Moines Register. But "Iowa and New Hampshire don't go first because they mirror the rest of America." We have earned our pole position by making the candidates earn their victories person by person. Without us, America's leaders would be chosen in impersonal big-state elections swayed by big-money ad campaigns.
"A quick winner isn't the goal of presidential nominee campaign"

Iowa Inc. is a scam: Iowans are right that their caucus system is "a grassroots rarity," says Mike Murphy at TIME. But it's also a giant "racket" that sucks campaigns dry for dubious payoff. Candidates need to spend heavily on local staff, hotels, office space, catering, and ads. Meanwhile, "as few as 40,000 votes are often enough to win" Iowa, and the caucus winner often flames out later in the campaign. You can't blame the state for panicking: "Iowa Caucus Inc." can't thrive unless the big names play.
"The heartland hustle"

Fair or not, Iowa matters: The rest of the nation may not like it, but Iowa's Aug. 13 Ames straw poll (which precedes the actual February 2012 caucuses) is "the first real test of grassroots energy and organizational heft for the wannabe nominees," says Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post. And with this year's "jumbled" GOP field, the pundits and campaign donors will examine every tea leaf to decide who to jump behind. The only sure things are that, come Labor Day, the race will be much clearer, and that "it’s going to be a doozy."
"Republican presidential contenders' first real test begins on Memorial Day"