A week from now the year's biggest event in Iowa will kick off when the state fair opens its doors to more than a million visitors from all over the world. But just up the road from the state capital, a far more serious contest – and one that doesn't involve a butter sculpting contest – will unfold only days later when many of the top Republican presidential candidates descend on a college town for an event that could set the tone for the crucial campaign battles ahead: the Ames straw poll.
Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have all been touring the Hawkeye State in recent weeks in an attempt to build support for the straw poll, set for next Saturday.
While other contenders -- frontrunner Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman -- are not officially competing in Ames, they will be keeping a close eye on what happens there. After all, they are on the ballot too.
Four years ago Romney won the straw poll, but it was Mike Huckabee's surprising second-place finish that sent the former Arkansas governor surging to victory in the Iowa caucuses that winter.
This time around Bachmann, Pawlenty and others are hoping to tear out a page from the Huckabee playbook. The secret to success in Ames, pundits say, is the right mix of strong organization, a passionate base, and low expectations. In 2007, Huckabee hardly boasted the organization or war chest of Romney, but his second-place finish – fervent supporters flocked to Ames – far exceeded expectations. As Huckabee said at the time, the runner-up result was really "a victory."
Various candidates in this year's field appear to possess ingredients needed to win in Ames. Bachmann, for instance, enjoys passionate support that has sent her surging up polls in recent months.
In addition, her popularity among evangelicals is similar to Huckabee's four years ago. At events across Iowa, her staff typed furiously on iPads to sign up voters for the straw poll. But the flip side to her rise in the polls is that it raises expectations: the Minnesota congresswoman is now viewed as the favorite to win in Ames.
"I need everybody's help for the straw poll, so please bring all your friends, organize, we'll work with you, we'll get buses, we're going to dance, we're going to sing, we're going to eat, we're going to have a great time at the straw poll, so come out – we'll change the country," she urged supporters at a recent event in Norwalk, Iowa.
On Wednesday she hit Iowa airwaves with a new television ad touting her opposition to the debt limit agreement and asking viewers to "join me here in Ames for the straw poll, and let's send a message to Washington."