Unless you're beloved by conservative Christians, don't bother campaigning in Iowa. That's one lesson learned by some strategists allied with several potential 2012 presidential candidates. Others see it differently. The question applies most to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) and Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).My reaction is that "skip Iowa" is and has always been an oddly tempting but in no way viable strategy.
The only candidate since the current nomination process and its Iowa-first schedule was established to skip a contested Iowa and still win the nomination was John McCain in 2008. So, was McCain a fluke or a new trend? Well, he was a fluke. First of all, while he more or less skipped Iowa, he did have enough of a campaign in place there to finish just a few (under 500) votes out of third place in the GOP field. In other words, he's barely an exception to the rule to begin with. Second, McCain couldn't have had better circumstances. The winner in Iowa was a little-known contender who had already drawn the wrath of important party constituencies. The third place finisher (Fred Thompson) was in the midst of running the most lackadaisical campaign in memory, and basically disqualified himself in subsequent contests. So McCain wound up one of three viable candidates despite Iowa, and he was able to use his other resources to prevail. And that's not all. National media attention from Iowa in 2008 was split between the parties, and (at least in my memory -- I haven't seen any studies on it) I'm fairly sure that well over half of the national media attention was devoted to the Obama/Clinton side of things, thus further diluting the effect of Iowa on the Republican side.
None of these factors will be in play for the candidates rumored to be thinking of skipping Iowa in 2012. Without Democrats, the winner of Iowa (or at least the expectation-beater; don't forget Gary Hart '84) will receive a blast of publicity, most likely very positive publicity. A strong candidate going into the caucuses who does badly (but still top three) will also receive plenty of publicity, as Hillary Clinton did in 2008 and George H.W. Bush did in 1988. That leaves precious little for the candidate(s) who sit out and wait for the next round.
Depending on the field, I can imagine a strategy for Romney that would involve him running a limited Iowa campaign, keeping expectations low, and trying to pick off third place without spending much time or money. Romney didn't exactly demonstrate a great reservoir of support in New Hampshire in '08, but he was governor next door and may enter 2012 as the early frontrunner, so it's at least possible to imagine that working out. The idea that Tim Pawlenty could it successfully is just plain silly, I think -- regardless of who is in the field, either someone is going to come out of Iowa the overwhelming favorite (in which case it's hard to imagine Pawlenty recovering) or multiple candidates are going to come out of Iowa with strong story lines, such as one candidate who is an Iowa winner and another who is leading in national polls (in which case it's hard to see how Pawlenty wouldn't get lost in the shuffle). Indeed, that logic would almost certainly sink Romney as well if he just plain skipped Iowa.
Good report by Ambinder, though -- this is the kind of stuff that political junkies just can't get enough of.