Battle of the Runners-Up

Ames, Iowa, is normally a sleepy town this time of year. With most of Iowa State University's 28,000 students gone for the summer, the pace of life slows for the rest of the city's 30,000 residents. But one August weekend every four years, it turns into the GOP's presidential playground and -- with 700 press credentials handed out this year -- a focus of national media attention.

The festivities kick off tonight with a debate on Fox News at 8 p.m. local time. All of the major declared candidates plan to attend save Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who will announce his candidacy in South Carolina this weekend. The Iowa State Fair started this week as well, so many of the candidates -- Thaddeus McCotter, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul, among others -- will speak there on Friday. Then on Saturday, the main event: the Republican Party of Iowa's straw poll, an early test for Republican candidates among the party's most committed voters. For $30 a pop, Iowans can vote in the poll -- though many candidates will pony up the money for them in order to come out looking strong. Despite a small turnout and an atmosphere more circus than serious, the straw poll -- which began in 1979 -- has traditionally played a major role in winnowing the GOP presidential field.

In itself, the Iowa straw poll is little indication of who will win the Republican nomination. Iowa caucuses voters are not representative of mainstream, national Republicans: When Mike Huckabee won the state in 2008, 60 percent of caucus goers were self-identified evangelical Christians. The straw poll is an even smaller, more extreme subset. In 2007, only 14,000 up showed in Ames, and the poll was dominated by social conservatives. Success at the straw poll is primarily an indication of support among diehard activists and the most conservative Iowa GOP voters.

But while the straw poll might not measure popular support among the broader GOP, it does test the competency of each candidate's organization and, with the media watching, is generally considered the opening note in the GOP primaries. Because of the symbolic weight of the results, the candidates buy swaths of tickets to the event and ship in voters from across the state in the hope of boosting their standing. They bid on lots in the parking space outside the Hilton Coliseum, which is where the poll itself takes place, and campaign for candidates by passing out literature and speaking directly to attendees (Michele Bachmann is also setting up a petting zoo). This year, Ron Paul coughed up $31,000 for the best spot in the parking lot outside the Coliseum, and word from Tim Pawlenty's campaign is that it's spent a million dollars organizing in Iowa prior to Ames.

For first-tier candidates, the results carry less importance than they do for the underdogs, which is part of the reason both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney will stop by for the Thursday debate to take advantage of the free TV time but skip town before the poll (Romney won the poll in 2007 but ended up losing the nomination to John McCain). It has, though, been the defining test for second-tier candidates. A poor placement at the poll could spell the end of the road for candidates like Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum as it did for former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who ended his campaign the day after he placed sixth in 2007. A good placement, on the other hand, can catapult a second-tier candidate to legitimacy, which is what happened with Mike Huckabee after a surprise second-place finish.

Michele Bachmann may just be this year's Huckabee. She's now the undisputed front-runner in Iowa, leading recent polls by around four points. But if she falters -- placing any lower than first or second -- that momentum may disappear. The national media is ready to anoint her, but when I spoke with local conservative activists, a number noted that Bachmann's Iowa campaign was lacking in organization as recently as a month ago. One local business owner only learned of a Bachmann event scheduled at his restaurant from a blanket robocall.

It may, however, be the absent candidate who makes the biggest impact this weekend: Rick Perry. According to reports, the Texas governor is finally prepared to announce a presidential bid on Saturday in South Carolina. The sole article above the fold in Wednesday's Ames Tribune was titled "The Perry Factor."

While Perry won't be there Saturday, an effort is already underway to increase his representation. Americans for Rick Perry -- a Super PAC that cannot communicate directly with the candidate but is assumed to have the blessing of his headquarters -- will be circulating among the activities before Saturday's vote. The Republican Party of Iowa has strict rules on handing out literature, so because Perry has yet to declare his candidacy, operatives from that group won't be able to do very much. Their Iowa director did say, however, that they've got supporters coming in from Texas who will be wandering around outside the Coliseum wearing Perry T-shirts. One imagines they will eagerly encourage straw-poll voters to write in the Texas governor.

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