The most important week of the 2012 presidential race so far begins now.
Whatever happens in Thursday's debate and Saturday's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, the Republican field is likely to be narrowed. No candidate will come out of Ames the same as he or she went in. Some may not come out at all. And one will emerge as the top challenger to Mitt Romney, whose decision not to compete in the straw poll turned the voting largely into a contest between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.
The week will also be key for Rick Perry, the Texas governor who's been weighing a run, but won't be on the Ames ballot. The less strength everyone else in the field shows, the wider the opening for him to get in.
For all its detractors who claim the straw poll has little predictive value, it has shaped every Republican presidential race for years. Even those who skipped competing — Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman — won't be able to ignore the results. And those votes won't be cast until after the debate — Huntsman's first — two days before Ames.
It's a week that will prove or disprove the conventional wisdom: Ron Paul's struggling to be taken seriously, Rick Santorum's hoping for attention, Herman Cain's fading fast, Gingrich is sliding toward irrelevance and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's run remains mostly confusing.
The stakes are highest for Pawlenty and Bachmann, as the former Minnesota governor pits two years of organizational build-up against the enthusiasm that has made the congresswoman the Iowa frontrunner as both try to prove their viability.
Former state GOP chairman Richard Schwarm said that though Pawlenty started early and did all the traditional things, "he's got a curse that he may be the second choice of too many and not the first choice of enough."
Bachmann, meanwhile, "is expected to win the straw poll," Schwarm said flatly. "She's almost at a dangerous level where she could win, but still not win big enough" to meet expectations.
Bachmann would rather not be seen as the front-runner. She told Radio Iowa recently she's the "underdog" because she didn't launch her campaign until late June.
Her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told POLITICO, "Since we were the last ones to start and have been badly outspent, we will be happy to finish near or at the top."
Their strategy, Rollins said, is simple: "Get as many Iowa voters to Ames and get them to eat Pawlenty's food, drink Ron Paul's soft drinks, listen politely to the other candidates' speeches, be entertained by Randy Travis music at the Bachmann tent, cheer wildly for Mrs. Bachmann and then go vote for her."
A look at Bachmann's on-the-ground operation reveals a campaign that's heavily focused on Ames — on top of her straw poll-specific television ad released last week, she's spending every day between now and the voting on the ground. She'll be busing supporters to Ames and buying their $30 tickets, then serving barbecue and featuring live music in an air-conditioned tent on site. She's also continuing a steady stream of mailers and ads on radio and television touting her vote against raising the debt limit — plus the television ads and billboards purchased by Citizens United to promote a movie featuring her.
Hoping to raise the expectations for her, Pawlenty's camp has been pumping up his fellow Minnesotan. "She has won every grass-roots organizing contest she's ever competed in, and according to all the polls, she's either first or second in Iowa and nationally," Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said. "She has more than enough resources and has hired a lot of people to do very well at Ames."
Pawlenty's spending about $1 million on a straw poll effort that employs a number of top Iowa consultants, and it's loaded up with heavyweight endorsements. In mid July he kicked off a "Road to Results" RV tour of Iowa that clocked 1,500 miles and reached more than 30 events, attended by more than 1,600 people.
Increasingly, Pawlenty has made an electability argument and gone on the offensive against Bachmann for supposedly lacking experience. Those who have seen him detect a new sense of excitement. Pawlenty's been careful not to predict too high of a finish, though he's been getting more bullish in recent days.
Iowa operative Ann Trimble-Ray, who chairs the Sac County GOP, said Pawlenty has clearly put his all into his straw-poll effort. "He has set these expectations for himself," she said. "That makes it a higher hill to climb. I think he is well qualified … but he's not getting the traction so far."
His operation is showing signs of a last-ditch effort. Last week, the campaign announced it would pull its radio and television advertising 72 hours before the straw poll to focus its efforts — and money — on voter turnout.
For the other candidates lagging in the polls, the best-case scenario is a surprisingly strong finish that buys them a new lease on life.
"The straw poll is a test for campaigns that seemingly have a lot of advantages to see if they actually can pull it together and be successful," said Nick Ryan, a Des Moines-based operative who is advising Santorum. "But it's also an opportunity for candidates who haven't caught on to show they are building something."
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has undertaken a three-week, 50-city tour of the state, dubbed the "Courage to Fight for American Values" tour. Though he can't afford paid advertising, his campaign is paying for straw poll tickets.
Cain placed third in the June Des Moines Register poll, with 10 percent. But since then, the former pizza-company CEO has experienced a staff exodus — including his Iowa straw poll director — that's dampened his momentum. He is spending all week campaigning across Iowa and seems to appreciate what's at stake. "I do believe I need to finish in the top three," Cain told a Des Moines forum last week, according to Radio Iowa.
Paul was the high bidder for Ames real estate, putting down $31,000 for the prime spot on the Iowa State University campus where Mitt Romney was based in 2007. The Texas congressman has a record of winning straw polls — including February's Conservative Political Action Conference and June's Republican Leadership Conference — but Ames is a bigger and more contested event. His campaign is more organized than four years ago, though, and he's purchased TV, radio and mail advertising for what he said last week is aimed for a top-three finish.
Then there's McCotter, the Michigan congressman who's a virtual unknown. He bought his way onto the straw poll ballot, bidding $18,000, but still may not get to participate in the Fox News-hosted debate Thursday. He's been touring Iowa with a high-profile paid consultant, former state House Speaker Christopher Rants.
Looming over the straw poll are the nonparticipants, especially Romney. But the former Massachusetts governor, who's skipping this year's poll after not getting the mileage he sought from his expensive 2007 victory, isn't totally absent. He's participating in the debate, will spend two days in Iowa this month and has numerous endorsements in the state, including two prominent former state legislators who announced their support last week.
Gingrich's determinedly unconventional campaign isn't paying for any advertising or straw poll tickets. He's been touring the state periodically and he will be at Ames on Saturday, despite not having a speaking spot or tent. For a campaign widely considered on life support, Ames will measure how far Gingrich's grass-roots appeal can take him.
Huntsman's written off Ames and Iowa, saying he can't compete there because he opposes ethanol. Unlike with Romney, there doesn't appear to be a Huntsman stealth campaign in Iowa. He is on the ballot, but Huntsman's campaign would be surprised if he gets any votes.
Ames isn't just about the people who might be forced out — there are also the people who might get drawn in.
As a non-candidate, Perry has more of an Ames campaign than many who've declared. A PAC supporting the Texas governor has been airing television ads, while another independent group, Americans for Rick Perry, is campaigning for write-in votes for the Texas governor. A strong finish would build the buzz, along with the drumbeat for Perry to get in.
Perry adviser Dave Carney joked that the hope is to finish "in the top 10." There are nine names on the ballot.
A dogged group of volunteers also have been organizing on Sarah Palin's behalf in hopes she runs. But there's no write-in effort, according to the head of Iowans 4 Palin, Peter Singleton.
"If people want to write in her name, of course we appreciate their doing so, but we're not doing any push for votes in the straw poll, in any way," Singleton told the Conservatives 4 Palin blog. "Nothing — we are not even sending an e-mail out to our mailing list in the state encouraging people to do so."
POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.