For Republicans, most of what’s at stake in tonight’s Iowa caucuses is the nation’s attention.

Because the GOP chooses its national convention delegates at county and district conventions later in the year, tonight’s caucuses are essentially a non-binding straw poll.

Iowa political activists have been gathering on winter nights to take care of party business since the 1840s. But people outside the state have been taking notice only for the past 40 years.

In 1972, Democrats moved up their meeting to January. George McGovern finished a surprising second and went on to win his party’s nomination.

Republicans moved up their caucus in 1976 and candidates have paid close attention to Iowa ever since.

“Undecided” led at evening’s end in 1976 but Jimmy Carter finished first among the named Democratic candidates. That showing launched him on the road to the White House.

Romney Backs Off On Prediction Of Win

Mitt Romney is no longer predicting a first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. He tells MSNBC, “It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen.” But Romney says he thinks he’ll “be among the top group.”

He had told hundreds of supporters in Iowa last night that he would win today’s caucuses, and eventually the Republican nomination for president.

According to the polls, his chief opponents in Iowa are Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. But thousands of caucus-goers are still undecided. He’s facing diminished threats in Iowa from the two candidates his campaign had worried most about — Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Instead of focusing on his Republican rivals, Romney has stayed focused on Barack Obama.

Romney says the top three finishers “will get a good sendoff into New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida” — the first three primary states.

The former Massachusetts governor is holding a rally today in Des Moines ahead of an evening gathering in the Iowa capital to wait for the caucus results.

Bachmann dismisses predictions

URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann doesn’t put much stock in polls that show her doing poorly in today’s Iowa caucuses.

Bachmann tells CNN “polls go up and down and the sample size is very small.” She says that over the last two weeks she’s seen thousands of people “flip” and go her way.

Bachmann, who calls herself the “one true conservative” in the GOP race, told Fox News she believes there’s “a lot of soft, hidden support that’s going to come out tonight for the caucuses.”

The Minnesota congresswoman planned to make her final appeal for support at a caucus site in Blackhawk County, where she spent her early years. Every recent poll put Bachmann in last place heading into the caucuses.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)