With Rudy Giuliani’s decision to skip the August Ames Straw Poll, prompting John McCain to immediately bail out as well (strange, it almost seemed like he was looking for an excuse), Mitt Romney made the smart — and obvious — move: Declare victory!

But Romney might not even be the biggest winner from this turn of events. As the Iowa GOP chairman pointed out, “This could create a big opening.” Although the straw poll is far from perfect as a measure of support, it does reward strong organization, and that’s also a critical factor in the January (or perhaps December?) caucuses. And it presents an opportunity for a candidate to get free media coverage and separate from the pack.

While Romney appears almost certain to win it, Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback could gain a lot of momentum with a strong second place showing. And even though Giuliani’s campaign still says it is “100% committed” to winning the caucus, Iowans tend to reward those candidates who jump through all of the traditional hoops, and punish those who don’t.

This seems similar to the “leaked” memo from Hillary Clinton’s campaign urging her to “bypass” Iowa. Of course, she immediately insisted that this wasn’t her plan. A candidate really can’t afford to admit to giving up on a state, especially the first one — it signals weakness and puts a cloud of doubt over the campaign. But Iowa is all about the expectations game, and it looks like some candidates would just as soon try to lower their expectations. The dangerous part of that strategy is if it works too well, and creates an opening for a rival to do “better than expected.” And that can shake up the entire race.

Comments