The state of play in Iowa

We’re still about seven months away from the Iowa caucuses, and the race among Republican presidential hopefuls is still taking shape. That said, candidates have already spent quite a bit of time in the Hawkeye State, and the Ames Straw Poll is less than two months away, so it’s not too early to check in on the state of play in Iowa.

The Des Moines Register‘s first Iowa Poll of the season is now out, and is of great interest to the political world because it’s considered the gold standard for Iowa polling. It’s not the only data on the 2012 caucuses, but it’s considered the best data.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann sit atop the standings in the year’s first Des Moines Register Iowa Poll on the Republican presidential field.

Romney, the national front-runner and a familiar face in Iowa after his 2008 presidential run, attracts support from 23 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. Bachmann, who will officially kick off her campaign in Iowa on Monday, nearly matches him, with 22 percent.

“She’s up there as a real competitor and a real contender,” said Republican pollster Randy Gutermuth, who is unaffiliated with any of the presidential candidates. “This would indicate that she’s going to be a real player in Iowa.”

That’s probably an understatement. Bachmann only trails the frontrunner by a single point in this poll, and she hasn’t really spent a dime yet. She has room to grow.

There’s quite a drop off after the top two. Herman Cain is third with 10%, followed by Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul with 7% each. Tim Pawlenty is sixth with 6%, Rick Santorum is next with 4%, and Jon Huntsman, who has already said he won’t compete in Iowa, is eighth with 2%.

If there’s a story here, other than Bachmann’s strength in the state, it’s Pawlenty’s poor showing. He’s spent an enormous amount of time in Iowa, is the first candidate to begin airing television ads in the state, has put together a top-notch Iowa team, has made the caucuses a key part of his entire 2012 strategy, and is nevertheless running sixth — behind Newt Gingrich, who doesn’t even have a staff in Iowa anymore.

Ouch.

Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report told the Register, “If I were the Pawlenty camp, I would be enormously concerned about this poll.”