When the Iowa State Fair opens today, the Des Moines Register's "old-fashioned political soap box" will be a top attraction, where visitors sit around on bales of hay to watch the Republican presidential candidates parade through on the stump.
This year, one Democrat – DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz – will seize the platform too, delivering what aides say will be a rousing defense of President Obama aimed at capturing the attention of Iowa independents heading into the fall.
"She's going to talk about the president's accomplishments and how important it is to reach compromise," said DNC spokeswoman Melanie Roussell. "And she's going to draw out the contrast between the president's work to reach compromise and Republicans opposition to it."
Schultz's appearance in Iowa and that of other top Democrats, including senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, is intended to amplify a week-long online messaging scheme that portrays Obama's challengers as "extreme."
Democrats have rolled out a website with videos blasting each Republican candidates' "extreme aims," launched a twitter account (@GOPSayWhat) to aggregate their "out-of-touch" statements, and held roundtable discussions on Republicans' economic policies in several Iowa cities.
The scope and impact of the campaign is limited: None of the videos aired on TV, the twitter account has fewer than 1,500 followers, and the roundtables were only gatherings of "four or five local officials," one state Democrat said.
Still, officials are banking on their message standing out against a backdrop of Republican revelry with tonight's presidential debate and Saturday's straw poll in Ames. And, they say, independents – the largest political affiliation in Iowa at 36 percent of registered voters – are listening.
"Poll after poll after poll shows policies Republicans are putting forward are not the ones Iowa independents are interested in pursuing in this country," said Norm Sterzenbach, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party.
State Democrats, who have kept a full-time paid staff of 15 in place since the 2010 campaign, are already organizing for the 2012 caucuses of their own, Sterzenbach said, even though Obama doesn't have a challenger.
"It's not going to be anything like what we saw in 2008. We're not shooting for numbers like we'd expect to see on the Republican side," he said. "But we are going to re-engage our volunteer networks in key counties and key areas across the state to reach out to independents for the next campaign."
The Obama campaign's organizing apparatus, which has remained in place in Iowa since 2007, has spent the summer beefing up its ranks and energizing supporters. A campaign official said volunteers have placed tens of thousands of phone calls, held more than 1,000 face-to-face meetings with prospective supporters and trained newcomers at dozens of grassroots planning sessions across the state.
While Iowa only boasts seven electoral votes in the presidential election, it has enormous symbolic value for Obama, whose candidacy got a major boost there when he won the Democratic caucuses in 2007.
He'll swoop into the state early next week on his three-day, three-state bus tour, holding a rural economic forum at a community college in Peosta.
"The president is seeing all the Republicans are soaking up all the media here this week, so it's perfectly calculated," said Iowa pollster Ann Selzer of Obama's Midwest trip. "He needs to reclaim more of the bully pulpit, more command of the media attention on his own turf."
Polls show Iowans remain supportive of Obama, giving him an above average 49-percent job approval rating, according to a recent Gallup survey. He won the state by a roughly 10 percentage point margin against John McCain in 2008.
But state Republicans and many of the presidential candidates circling through the state insist Obama won't be able to win Iowa again.
The president "won't carry Iowa in November 2012," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a crowd in Pella, Iowa, Wednesday. "He won't carry Iowa because Iowans recognize that his presidency has failed." Romney added, "I think I'll win it if I'm the nominee."