And So It Begins: New Hampshire Straw Poll Offers Early 2012 Tea Leaves

More than a year before New Hampshire Republicans will head to the polls to vote for the candidate they think is best equipped to take on President Obama in 2012, leaders of the Granite State GOP will meet today to choose which of the myriad unofficial candidates has the early lead.

WMUR-TV and ABC News will sponsor New Hampshire’s first-ever straw poll of state Republican officials, who will gather in Derry, NH to choose their next state chair. The event, one of the earliest of its kind, ever, is expected to be watched by political junkies across the country.

But it’s unclear if the event will do much more than briefly satiate the appetites of those hungry for all things electoral — coming so far before the primary, and before the major candidates have officially declared their intention to run, what exactly the “winner” of Saturday’s straw poll suggests about the nomination race is difficult to predict, to say the least. But the event will offer a chance to see who has the heart of the activists and party organizers in New Hampshire, which could suggest who’s got the momentum heading into next year’s primary season.Here’s how the straw poll is going to work, from WMUR’s announcement of the event:

This Saturday, the 493 members of the New Hampshire Republican party will gather at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire for their annual meeting. While there, each one of these party members will be able to anonymously choose the candidate they’d like to see as the party’s nominee for 2012.

Politico reports the officials in Derry will be handed a 21-line ballot — “20 names of potential candidates and one line marked “Other,” where participants can write in an unlisted candidate.” Who’s on the list? “The ballot includes some Republicans who say they aren’t running, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and others who have only vaguely hinted at the possibility of a run, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.”

Polls have shown Romney — who has poured a lot of attention on New Hampshire since coming in second to John McCain there in 2008 — has the early lead. Indeed, the biggest drama in tomorrow’s straw poll will likely center around how much Romey wins by. If his support in the straw balloting is lower than his poll numbers — around 40% in a multi-candidate field right now — it will likely be sold by observers as bad news for Romney. If he comes in significantly higher than 40%, it will be seen as bad news for candidates like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who need to put up big numbers in the early primary states to establish themselves as viable.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Meet The 2012 GOPers: Ex Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA)]

Of course, what everyone will be talking about is Sarah Palin. No matter what percentage of the straw vote she receives tomorrow, it will be among the most discussed number of the day.

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