DES MOINES, Iowa -- With just 32 days until Iowa's influential caucuses -- and with no clear frontrunner in the polls -- not a single GOP candidate for president is campaigning here today. Not one.
Not overall frontrunner Mitt Romney, who finally does have ads on the air.
Not the latest anti-Romney candidate to emerge, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Not Herman Cain who is back in Georgia to meet with his wife amidst allegations of a long-term extramarital affair.
Not Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who believes he is at his best when he is doing the very kind of hand-to-hand campaigning that Iowans value.
Not even Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has the potential to surprise here, or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the only candidate to have campaigned in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, or Michele Bachmann, whose fate rests with her finish in the Hawkeye State. (Only Bachmann and Gingrich held events in the state earlier in the week; Santorum comes Sunday before another couple candidate free days yet again.)
“This cycle has definitely been different from previous cycles, and at this point nothing is surprising,” Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz told NBC News. He adds that he believes the race here is still wide-open heading into the final leg. “It will be a race that comes down to the wire here in Iowa."
This cycle, candidates are relying more on TV ads, direct mailers, telemarketing calls, and the Internet to push their ground game in Iowa rather than the usual retail-style politics.
Perry is frequently airing new ads in television markets across the state (a new one came out just today). Iowans receive literature in their mailboxes on a continuous basis from most candidates, with the exception of Gingrich who has not spent any money on ads in the state. And hundreds of calls are placed each day by campaign staff and volunteers asking voters to come out and caucus on Jan. 3rd.
“TV ads, mailers and debates may help boost name ID and give a sense of comfort through artificially-inflated poll numbers,” said caucus veteran Tim Albrecht, who serves as Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s spokesman and is unaffiliated this cycle. “The true test of a candidates strength displays itself on caucus night, where Iowans will turn out for the person who takes the time to demonstrate, in person, why they should be the next president.”
And with less then five weeks until the caucuses, some campaigns are still trying to lay roots in Iowa. The Gingrich campaign, for example, just opened its headquarters here three days ago and hired its fifth staffer today. Romney’s campaign in Iowa, while it has had 5 paid staffers actively working the state for months, also only recently opened its official headquarters here.
Other campaigns have invested more resources in the first-in-the-nation caucus state: Bachmann employees 12 paid staffers here, Perry 10, Santorum 9, Paul 5 and Cain 4.
With or without the candidates, campaign staff and volunteers are using other means to reach voters and garner support.
“I think that the majority of the GOP candidates are doing a good job of staying in touch with Iowa caucus goers even when they're not in Iowa,” undecided caucus goer Becky Beach said.
“The process is so long in Iowa, a voter trying to make a decision would have to have their head in the sand not to be able to follow all the candidates daily if they so choose,” Beach added. “ I think it's moving over to social networking and the 24/7 news cycle.”
But typically, caucus goers do not reward those who spend little time in their state.
“Candidates who fail to put in the time, energy and attention needed to turn out Iowans will find themselves scratching their heads on caucus night, but they shouldn't,” Albrecht said. “Time and again, caucus-goers have rewarded the candidates who take the time to visit, organize and organize some more.”
Former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said candidate-free days in Iowa are to be expected.
“Frankly, they are a chance for reporters and campaign staffers to get some other work done,” Yepsen told NBC News.
“Time is the most precious resource a campaign has,” he said. “With the calendar this compressed and money hard to come by for some, the candidates simply have to be off in other states or in the money-centers getting refueled.”