One thing in Bachmann's favor is that other prominent Republican contenders such as frontrunner Mitt Romney are not officially competing in Ames. Neither is Jon Huntsman or Newt Gingrich. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry is not planning to throw his hat into the campaign ring until Saturday, when he delivers a speech in South Carolina, so he will not be on the straw poll ballot either, but write-in votes for all are possible.
Bachmann is clearly hoping to follow Mike Huckabee's path to success in 2007. The former Arkansas governor finished a surprising second four years ago thanks to massive backing from home-schoolers and evangelicals, two groups that tend to gravitate toward Bachmann. Despite losing that day to Mitt Romney, Huckabee's silver medal felt like gold.
That brings us to the third element of Ames. If passion and organization are the first two key ingredients, the third is expectations. Campaigns go out of their way to downplay their expectations for the straw poll, hoping to set themselves up to argue that whatever their eventual finish, they have done well. Pawlenty, for instance, has repeatedly said that any finish higher than sixth -- where he placed in the Des Moines Register poll in late June -- would be a good one. That, of course, is nonsense: If Pawlenty comes in, say, fifth, on Saturday behind Bachmann, Paul, Santorum and Cain, it would be a disastrous result for him. All the same, expectations for Pawlenty and Paul are low compared to Bachmann's.
"I think she needs a convincing win," Robinson said. "She has campaigned in the state stressing her Iowa roots that she was born here, so you have the hometown girl who is leading in the polls against a field of candidates participating in the event who aren't necessarily blowing people's doors off, so people expect her to win handily, but it might be very difficult to do."
Whether she wins or not, the consensus heading into the straw poll appears to be that Bachmann and Pawlenty and Paul -- in some order -- will form the top three in Ames. Pawlenty, because of his organizational might, looks set for a formidable showing, while Paul could ultimately spring a surprise over the Minnesotans, according to one top Republican operative in Iowa.
"It's nature versus nurture. Bachmann is nature: She has the charisma, the energy and people are going to vote for her, so she's not organizing as much," the source said. "Pawlenty is the nurture candidate: He's got the organization. I'm an organizational guy. I think that can always make up for it. But Ron Paul has both nature and nurture. He has an exciting base, and he's been able to build on it with his organization."
"I think if Paul wins it's going to be symbolic," the source continued. "We haven't seen people like Romney and Perry here, so people might cast a symbolic vote and try to send a message to say, 'He's not going to win the nomination, but hey, I really like what Paul is saying.'"