Here’s the only thing we know for certain about today’s Iowa caucuses: no one can predict the winner.

Here’s the other thing that no one wants to talk about: Will Iowa really matter?

For all the attention and millions of campaign dollars spent in the first Presidential contest in the nation, the Iowa caucuses are really a straw poll; a beauty contest with an actual delegate section coming down the road.

Unless there’s a big surprise, Wall Street, for instance, will focus on the economy, especially post-holiday credit card news, and the December employment report due out on Friday, CNNMoney.com reports.

“My guess is what happens in Iowa will not have a big impact,” Bill Rhodes, chief investment strategist at the Boston-based research firm Rhodes Analytics, told CNNMoney.com.

What Iowa does offer is validity and momentum – though that, too, is hard to gauge.

The respected Des Moines Register’s final poll shows Illinois Senator Barack Obama leading Democratic opponents, New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, thanks in large part, the newspaper says, to “a dramatic influx of first-time caucusgoers, including a sizable block of political independents.”

The Register called 800 likely Democratic caucusgoers between December 27th and 30th, at a time, by the way, when Iowa residents were being bombarded by calls from every campaign.

With a margin of error at 3.5%, The Register reported that:

“Obama was the choice of 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, up from 28 percent in The Register’s last poll in late November,” while Clinton remained at 25% and Edwards was unchanged at 24%.

Another major finding: “Thirty percent of the poll’s respondents said a candidate’s ability to bring about change is the most important, followed by 27 percent who said their priority is choosing a candidate who will be the most successful in unifying the country.”

Change and unity have been themes for all the candidates, with Clinton, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Deleware Senator Joe Biden throwing in “experience.”

But the kicker in the poll was that, “roughly a third of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to choose someone else before Thursday evening. Six percent were undecided or uncommitted.”

One third of prospective caucusgoers could be persuaded to change their minds before or that night?

Meanwhile, a Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll conducted December 29th to January 1st finds that among 933 likely Democratic caucusgoers, Clinton runs even with Obama at 28%, according to Pollster.com.

A new InsiderAdvantage / Majority Opinion survey of 788 likely cuacusgoers conducted December 28th and 29th has Clinton receiving 30%, Edwards 29% and Obama 22%.

A new CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll has Clinton at 33%, with Obama at 31% and Edwards at 22%.

The polls underscored the unusual Iowa caucus system for Democrats.

Barring obstacles such as the freezing weather and other distractions, caucusgoers follow a very transparent procedure. There are no secret ballots.

When caucusing officially starts, voters go to an assigned spot in the room designated for their candidate.

If their candidate fails to meet a 15% “viability,” the other groups select a representative to go to each of these now free voters to try to persuade them to join their candidate’s group.

This persuasion runs the gamut from arguing for the candidate’s political principles to promising to baby-sit for the new recruit.

The tallies of the new groups of original and “second-choice” voters are then counted with the tallies from other precincts following the same procedure until the top three vote getters are announced.

The national news organisations intend to poll people going into the caucuses, but given the ability to have a second-choice, initial polls may not be a reliable indicator of who might win.

And in the closing days, candidates have been lobbying hard to be voters’ first and second choices.

Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinch, (who, along with former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel supports marriage equality), asked his supporters to make Obama their second choice if he doesn’t survive the viability test.

The Republicans do not have such a complicated system.

They vote for their favourite and that’s that.

But Republican caucusgoers are having as much trouble making up their minds as are their Democratic counterparts.

The CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll has former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 31% to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee at 28%.

The Des Moines Register poll indicated that the strong Iowa evangelical crowd preferred Baptist minister and self-proclaimed “Christian leader” Huckabee at 32%, compared to Mormon millionaire Romney at 26%.

Arizona Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and late-comer, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, are not expected to do well in Iowa but are hoping to hold out for the New Hampshire Primary to get a boost until Super Tuesday on February 5th when 22 states vote.

Representative Ron Paul, who is dramatically stirring the Independent heart-strings, may do better than expected.

But for backbenchers such as California Representative Duncan Hunter – as well as Democratic single-digit candidates Dodd, Biden, Kucinich – Iowa may prove a death-match, with New Hampshire and beyond too costly to consider.

Richardson may hold out until the Nevada Primary on January 19 where his Latino and Southwest credentials might pump up his candidacy.

And while gays are all over Iowa vigorously supporting their candidates, one of the best gauges of LGBT participation in the front-loaded primaries will be in Nevada – especially Las Vegas – where the gay population is out, proud and growing.

OK – to be honest, I’ll be scooping up the minutia out of Iowa, too, looking for the subtle signs that the candidates walk the talk.

Will there be any gays on the stage with the winners?

Who will reach out first and who will comment on the civil unions that just took place in New Hampshire?

How will the campaign game-plans shift? Will gay issues matter more or less as the campaigns move towards Super-Tuesday?

Karen Ocamb © 2007 GayWired.com; All Rights Reserved