MANCHESTER, N.H. -- An Iowa straw poll that traditionally has served as an early benchmark in the Republican presidential nomination race lost much of its luster yesterday, as first Rudolph W. Giuliani and then John McCain decided not to compete in it.
The straw poll, scheduled for Aug. 11, in past campaigns has drawn tens of thousands of Republicans to a state party gathering in Ames, Iowa. But candidates vying to run well have had to spend large sums of money to transport supporters to cast ballots at the gathering.
Giuliani's campaign, which has not stressed grass-roots organizing in Iowa and faced a potential setback in the straw poll, announced yesterday morning that it would not actively participate in the vote. Hours later, the McCain camp followed suit.
In previous straws polls, poor showings - especially by those struggling to break into the top tier of contenders - diminished some candidates' political viability. In 1999, lackluster results in Ames helped end the campaigns of former Vice President Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander (now a senator from Tennessee).
But Giuliani calculated that skipping the straw poll would not significantly undermine his standing as the leader in national polls of the presidential preferences among GOP-leaning voters.
That prospect was bolstered by the similar move yesterday afternoon by McCain.
With Guiliani and McCain quitting the straw poll - and with former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson expected to soon enter the presidential race, also likely to bypass it - that would leave only Mitt Romney among the leading GOP candidates committed to showing up in Ames.
The lack of top-tier competition could undercut a Romney victory, denying the former Massachusetts governor momentum.
Giuliani advisers said the former New York mayor would save $3 million by skipping the straw poll. Giuliani adviser Jim Nussle called the event "a circus."
"It's not a serious event in the grand scheme of picking the nominee," said Nussle, a former Iowa congressman.
Giuliani advisers said he would still compete aggressively in the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the Republican nomination race. The caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 14.
Giuliani has devoted less attention than several rivals to building a strong operation in Iowa. His liberal views on social issues have constrained his ability to appeal to conservatives in the state.
The withdrawal from the straw poll by McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona, was announced by his presidential campaign manager, Terry Nelson.
He said that in light of Giuliani's move, it was clear that the straw poll "will not be a meaningful test of the leading candidates' organizational abilities, so we have decided to forgo our participation in the event."
Nelson also stressed that McCain would keep working hard to win the caucuses.
Several of the long-shot GOP candidates are hoping to score a breakthrough by doing well in the straw poll - among them, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times.