ABC's Matthew Jaffe (@jaffematt) reports from Des Moines, Iowa:
At the state fair in Des Moines, Iowa, in August, they will judge the livestock like they do every year. Down the road in Ames, there will be a more rarified competition that happens only every four years as conservatives brave the hot summer to judge the stock of Republican presidential candidates.
The Ames Straw Poll, which has become a rite of passage for candidates when there is no incumbent Republican in the White House, signals the start of a furious six-month march towards the Iowa caucuses next winter. It is a chance to separate contenders from pretenders.
This year, the straw poll promises to be hotly contested.
While GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney will not be there, and neither will struggling Jon Huntsman, other Republican hopefuls will be. At the top of the list is Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who has shot up in polls in the past month. Boosted by a strong performance in the New Hampshire debate and helped by her success among Iowa evangelicals, Bachmann looks poised to show up in Ames as the one to beat.
But if she has an Achilles heel at this point, it is perhaps a lack of organization — and in Ames, if half the battle is expectations, then the other half is organization. Combine the current high expectations for Bachmann and her organizational shortcomings and the stage could be set for an upset in Ames.
So who could knock Bachmann off her perch? One candidate who sorely needs a strong result in Ames is fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty. The former two-term governor was criticized for not standing up to Romney in the New Hampshire debate. He recorded only six percent support in the highly-anticipated Des Moines Register poll in late June. His $4.5 million fundraising haul in the second quarter was viewed as disappointing. And one of his top advisers, Vin Weber, had to apologize for saying that Bachmann would be tough to beat in Iowa because of her “sex appeal.”
“Pawlenty has a huge organizational advantage, but he’s coming off a rough month,” a top Republican operative in Iowa told ABC News. “Bachmann has a huge passion advantage, but she lacks organization. The difference is that only Bachmann can fix her disadvantage –- she can improve her organization in the coming weeks.”
Even though, according to sources, Pawlenty has about as many full-time staffers in Iowa as Romney did in 2008, he has consistently languished in the polls.
With a strong team of seasoned political veterans and the type of field set-up in Iowa that many competitors might envy, he has the organizational ability to make a run in Ames. The question is: Does he generate the passion among voters? After all, convincing a supporter to drive across the state on a sweltering Saturday in August to vote in the straw poll is no small feat. It takes organization, but it also takes a candidate who can stir up passion among voters. A poor finish in Ames could spell the end for Pawlenty, but the flip side is that a strong finish — especially one that soundly beats expectations — could send him surging into the fall.
“It’s about beating expectations,” a second Republican operative said. “Pawlenty, in my estimation, is in the catbird seat. He’s not lighting it up in the polls, but he’s got the potential to finish close to Bachmann in Ames and show an upward trajectory. The challenge for Bachmann is she’s red hot in July, but you need to be red hot in August. She not only has to beat Pawlenty in Ames, but there’s got to be some kind of margin of victory for her. If Pawlenty can deliver on his much-ballyhooed organization and get people to the straw poll, I certainly think that would change all these obituaries about his campaign.”
In recent weeks, the two Minnesotans have engaged in a war of words, with Pawlenty calling Bachmann’s record in Congress “non-existent.” Bachmann replied that she is “proud” of her record “of fighting with resolve, and without apology, for our free markets, for sane fiscal policies and in opposition to the advancement of the big government left. Both are planning to log hours in Iowa ahead of Ames, with Bachmann spending a mid-July weekend there and Pawlenty spending all of the following weekend there.
However, it's not just about Bachmann and Pawlenty. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has a vocal following that has helped him win many a straw poll, most recently in New Orleans last month. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich also hope to be players in Ames, though it would come as a surprise if either can crack the top three.
Complicating matters further is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry has been taking all the necessary steps to explore a presidential run, talking to key Iowa players in recent weeks. One source who spoke to Perry said the governor told him he originally was not planning to run, but is now "leaning heavily" towards running. In another clue that Perry may throw his hat in the ring in Iowa, his outside funding group is set to rent a plot of land in Ames. The state's GOP leaders will decide on July 23 whether or not to include him on the ballot but, either way, it seems his presence will be felt there.
Can one of the candidates surge to a victory in Ames that will propel them towards the caucuses in February? While Ames is no guarantee of success in the caucuses -– Romney won the straw poll four years ago, but Mike Huckabee's stunning second-place finish sent him surging to victory that winter –- it is still a powerful force, at once winnowing the field and setting the stage for the caucuses. Moreover, it is always worth remembering that both the last two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, won the Iowa caucuses. The fight for the Hawkeye State is now set to get started in earnest.