August 5, 2011 -- 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."
Fellow Minnesota native Tim Palenty is in almost the exact opposite position. The former governor has been languishing in the polls. A slew of "pre-obituaries" for his campaign have appeared in the national media.
But write off Pawlenty at your peril. His campaign has the type of field organization in Iowa that his rivals simply cannot match at the moment. And he has gone all in for Ames, embarking on a two-week RV tour around the state and launching a slew of TV ads. Later this week he heads out on another eight-day tour, planning to cover 1,366 miles as he hits 26 cities in 21 counties.
By the time mid-August rolls around Pawlenty will have reportedly spent around $1 million on his campaign effort in Iowa. The campaign's even hawked Pawlenty hockey sweaters after the former governor played a pick-up game in Urbandale last month.
"I may not be Wayne Gretzky, but I certainly held my own, including scoring a goal," Pawlenty said in a fundraising email to supporters.
In interviews, Pawlenty has tried to play down expectations for Ames, talking up Bachmann as "clearly the frontrunner" and dialing down his own chances, despite the recent war of words between the two campaigns.
"Our goal is to move from the back of the pack to towards the front of the pack," he told ABC News after a recent campaign event in Muscatine, Iowa. "The Des Moines Register poll is the most respected poll in this state, and they had us in sixth or seventh place. Our goal is to try to move up to something closer to the front. I don't think we need to win it, but we need to show progress and I'm confident we will."
Another contender not to be underestimated is Ron Paul. The Texas congressman easily won a Republican Leadership Conference straw poll in New Orleans earlier this summer.
More than 100 people came out for a Paul event in Cedar Rapids two weeks ago, a sign that his supporters could make some real noise at the straw poll. Next week he is setting out on a two-day swing through the state with son Rand, a U.S. senator. The Paul campaign is proclaiming the visit as the first known instance of an incumbent congressman campaigning for the presidency with his son, an incumbent senator.
While he is not seen as a top contender, Santorum has been making a late push for Ames. The former Pennsylvania senator brought his family to Iowa in late July to embark on a state-wide tour. At a breakfast event in Ankeny, he wooed the small crowd to come to Ames with the promise that he would be dishing out homemade peach jam.
And Herman Cain will make a "Common Sense Solutions" bus tour and launch a weekly radio show. Cain has said he needs a top-three finish in Ames.
"There are four campaigns really working and organizing for the straw poll: Pawlenty, Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum," said Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican.
Every one has "a different strategy," he continued. "Pawlenty has the traditional organization apparatus to fill buses and get people to Ames, but they're sticking close to a 60-mile radius of Ames when they're campaigning. Santorum, though, is campaigning all across the state and actually getting traction in these border communities.
"Paul will have the most passionate supporters there," added Robinson. "He turned out 1300 people four years ago with little effort and this time around they have a pretty substantial apparatus, so he'll do better."
Bachmann, he said, was "really hurt" with the debt ceiling debate in terms of campaigning. But "she has far more hype and interest. She had a crowd of 60 people in Sioux City the other day and she wasn't even there – she did it by phone from DC. So there's a lot of intensity on her side. She's got to win – if she doesn't win, she's in big trouble."
A top Republican operative in Iowa, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told ABC News, "I think Ron Paul or Tim Pawlenty is going to win this thing, and Bachmann is going to come in a disappointing third. Church groups and home-schoolers have not all coalesced around her campaign like they did for Huckabee last time. And her campaign hasn't figured that out yet. They don't know what kind of trouble they're in. If they don't figure this out in the next 10 days, then I think this could be the beginning of the end for her."
Pawlenty's campaign, the source said, "knows what they're doing." And Paul's approach could resonate with voters because they saw him in Iowa four years ago talking about the nation's debt problem.
"I think that Paul's team has a plan and they're executing it flawlessly," continued the source. "He's got the credibility that even someone like Bachmann does not – because he's been saying this for years and years in some of the same ballrooms he's speaking in right now."
But Bachmann remains the favorite. Touring the state, she's drawn large crowds on a regular basis in recent weeks. And the fact that this year's straw poll is preceded two days earlier by a debate may play to her strengths. Bachmann shined in the debate in New Hampshire earlier this summer, outperforming her rivals and sending her poll numbers soaring.
The Iowa operative predicted that the Ames debate could make "a big difference" in the straw poll because so many people are now undecided. Romney, for instance, will attend the debate and hold a handful of events in the days leading up to it. Even if he is not officially competing in Ames, the current GOP frontrunner still has something riding on the outcome there. With the likely possibility that Texas governor Rick Perry will enter the race in the coming weeks, Romney could have an additional contender to tangle with soon, to say nothing of Sarah Palin.
Last month the Iowa State Republican Central Committee decided that Perry and Palin would not be on the ballot in Ames, but write-in votes are allowed and those votes will be made public. That means Perry could still pose a threat to Romney.
"If I'm Rick Perry's people, I go in there with a mission to beat Romney with write-ins," the Republican operative said. "If Perry can beat the straw poll winner from last time around, without speaking, without going to the debate, then that is big. And if that happens, then that's not just an Iowa problem for Romney – that's a national problem. It would show that people are clamoring for someone else."
Robinson agreed that the results in Ames have the potential to be a big boost for someone like Perry.
"I think the Ames results could be very tight, with everyone getting between 2000 and 2500 votes with really no clear winner or loser. The way this campaign is shaking out at the moment plays right into the hands of a Perry or a Romney to re-emerge in Iowa. For example, Pawlenty just released his county chairs for Iowa. He only has 29 of them. There are 99 counties in the state. That's a sign of weakness. The door is wide open for someone like Perry to come in and organize and take off after Ames."
Despite all the attention that will be showered upon Ames in the coming days, victory there is no guarantee of future success. Four years ago Romney won the straw poll, but it was Arizona Sen. John McCain – who came in 10th after not competing – who ultimately won the GOP nomination. And overall, since its founding in 1979, only two out of five winners in Ames have gone on to become the Republican nominee.
But even if Ames might not crown an eventual winner, it can spell doom for a candidate who has a dismal performance. The poll has serious financial ramifications: if donors decide on the basis of the Ames results that a candidate cannot win it all, they can stop filling his coffers with their money.
"The straw poll is really a fundraising thing," Robinson said. "Look at this year. Let's say someone like Pawlenty doesn't beat Bachmann or Paul. Well, if that happens, then his donors might decide he won't be able to beat Romney or Perry either and they won't pony up for him."