ANKENY, Iowa — Politically speaking, this state is in something of an existential crisis.

For the last nine presidential elections, Iowa has reveled in the attention it gets with its position at the front of the presidential nominating contest. This time around, the question is not just who will win the Iowa caucuses, but whether it will matter.

When the rest of the country’s focus is on the economy, will Republicans in other states take their lead from the outcome of an eccentric process that has been dominated by social conservatives?

And as they look to defeat a black president who mobilized record numbers of young and minority voters four years ago, how relevant are the preferences of 200,000 or so caucus-goers in a rural state that is overwhelmingly white and significantly older than average?

Some of the leading presidential contenders, who have invested little in the state so far, appear to be hoping that the answer is not all that much — increasing the anxiety that Iowa Republicans feel about their place in the political firmament.

Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has been practically begging the candidates to engage.

“This is a state where you can effectively launch a campaign and it’s not too late,” he said earlier this month, after the 2008 Iowa winner, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, announced he wasn’t running in 2012. “I just want to make it clear that we’re wide open for all the candidates.”

But of the candidates being taken most seriously by the Republican establishment, only Tim Pawlenty appears to be making much of an effort in Iowa at this point. And he has a leg up by virtue of being the former governor of neighboring Minnesota.

Iowa Republicans were looking for affirmation Friday, when Mitt Romney, widely regarded as the frontrunner for the nomination, made his first visit of the presidential cycle. By this point four years ago, Romney had been to the state well over a dozen times, and was already running television ads.

Romney — who will be making Thursday’s official announcement of his campaign in New Hampshire — is leery of making that kind of Iowa commitment again.

The former Massachusetts governor hasn’t even committed to a late summer straw poll that is often seen as a crucial part of the process.

Romney spent $10 million, won the straw poll in August 2007 — and ended up losing to Huckabee. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who pretty much ignored the state and came in fourth, went on to trounce both Huckabee and Romney and win the nomination.

The uncomfortable fact for Iowa Republicans is that their cherished caucuses have rarely been much of a launching pad. Since the party held its first one to pick a president in 1976, there have been only two instances in which a winner who wasn’t already an incumbent has gone on to take the GOP nomination. And only one of those — George W. Bush in 2000 — actually won the White House.

State GOP chairman Matthew N. Strawn disputes the notion that Iowa Republicans are out of touch with the issues that are driving the political dialogue in other parts of the country. He suggests that a candidate with a strong economic message will find an eager audience here.

“There are those, mostly from outside our borders, who suggest that we are simply not representative of America, nor even Republicans in general,” Strawn said in a speech Thursday night to a GOP dinner in Des Moines.

“To suggest that Iowa Republicans don’t care about exploding deficits, rising fuel and food costs, job-killing regulatory uncertainty, wasteful stimulus spending and shameful demagoguery on entitlement reform is dead wrong. Actually to suggest that we don’t care about those defining issues for America is as wrong as it is offensive.”

For all the quirkiness of a contest that requires voters to venture into a frigid night and then spend hours arguing with their neighbors, it does have its virtues. The fact that running in Iowa requires every candidate to campaign from living room to living room means that little-known and underfunded ones have a shot at getting their names into the mix.

And Iowa can also be a proving ground, as it was four years ago for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s premise that he could bring new voters into the process. Obama won because those under age 30 participated in the Democratic caucuses at the same rate as those over 65 — something that had never happened before — and his victory in Iowa foreshadowed the remainder of his march to the White House.

GOP officials say some of that potential for overturning the conventional wisdom exists on their side this time, if a candidate has the right message.

The overall direction of Republican politics in Iowa has swung rightward on social issues, even since the last presidential election.

Conservatives were galvanized in part by a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. They defeated three justices last year in retention elections.

One factor, however, could work in favor of Romney or some other GOP establishment figure this time. Where Huckabee had the religious conservative vote almost entirely to himself in 2008, there is likely to be stiff competition that would divide that constituency in 2012.

Pawlenty is an evangelical Christian, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin could have strong appeal with religious voters as well, if she decides to run.

Also hoping to light a fire with grassroots conservatives is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who drew healthy crowds in Iowa even as his campaign stumbled out of the gate earlier this month.

On the same day that Romney was cautiously testing his reception in several spots where he ran well four years ago, tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was making her way through the state. GOP activists say she has been getting an enthusiastic reception.

“We’re all in agreement that (Obama) has got to go. The question is which tough hombre — or hombre-ette — will take on our president in 2012,” Bachmann told a GOP luncheon outside of Davenport.

Hosting the event in his capacity as Scott County GOP finance chairman was Brian Kennedy, a former state party chairman who the day before had announced he was signing up to lead Romney’s Iowa effort.

“Right now, she seems to have some traction,” he said. “But it’s very fluid. Two weeks from now, it could be (former Godfather’s Pizza CEO) Herman Cain or (former Pennsylvania Sen.) Rick Santorum.”

In Iowa, all things are possible. What happens from there, however, is an entirely different story.