A Cain-Romney race in Iowa

Some polls matter more than others. In Iowa, the Des Moines Register‘s Iowa Poll is widely considered the gold standard for Hawkeye State polling, and therefore gets considerably more attention than other surveys in the state.

And while conditions are likely to change, possibly more than once over the next nine weeks, it looks like Herman Cain and Mitt Romney are the dominant candidates.

Former business executives Herman Cain and Mitt Romney lead the Republican field in Iowa in an election cycle in which likely GOP caucusgoers favor business experience over elective experience as a qualification for the presidency.

The other contenders, despite their focus on the Hawkeye State, trail 10 percentage points or more.

The power of Cain’s likability has vaulted him to the top of The Des Moines Register’s new Iowa Poll, with 23 percent of likely caucusgoers saying he is their first choice. The durable Romney, on part two of his presidential quest, coasts in with 22 percent.

Ron Paul was a distant third with 12%, and was the only other candidate to reach double digits. Michele Bachmann, once considered the favorite in Iowa, was fourth with 8%, followed by Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich tied at 7% each. Rick Santorum was seventh with 5% support.

Of particular interest was the kind of support the top two candidates are receiving; “The former Massachusetts governor earns the support of just 10 percent of those who say they definitely plan to vote in the caucuses (Cain is at 27 percent). And Cain dominates Romney among those who identify themselves as very conservative, by more than 3 to 1.”

Given the nature of the caucus process, Cain’s more rabid supporters put him in a much better position, if it continues.

The Romney campaign’s spin overnight was that Romney hasn’t really been campaigning in Iowa, so the fact that he’s faring so well is great news. While there’s some truth to that, the spin has a key flaw: Cain has campaigned in Iowa even less than Romney, and Cain is now in the lead.

Of course, that leads to a series of other questions, most notably, is the nature of the campaign process — online activism, Fox News’ dominant role in the GOP, etc. — changing to such an extent that candidates can now excel in a state without bothering to spend a lot of time there?

It also leads one to wonder, might Cain actually win in Iowa if he made a credible effort?

Also note, Romney’s slow-but-steady strategy isn’t consolidating support — he’s actually lost a couple of points in Iowa since the mid-summer. For all the talk about inevitability and strong debate performances, Romney just hasn’t been able to expand his base of support at all.