Others now also see Bachmann with much at stake. Her emergence as a favorite of both tea party activists and Christian conservatives has significantly raised expectations for her performance in Ames. One Iowa Republican strategist, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely about the upcoming poll, said, “There’s no doubt that it’s Bachmann” who would be hurt more by a poor showing.
The wild card at the straw poll will be Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose small but passionate following could return big dividends in an event where a few thousand votes can vault someone into second place. Both the Pawlenty and Bachmann campaigns will worry about Paul on Saturday.
Romney, Huntsman and Gingrich are not competing actively in the straw poll. The ballot will include their names, however, as well as those of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).
Perry’s decision looms as an even bigger event, one that could dramatically redraw the race. His entry could easily eclipse the outcome of the straw poll, particularly if it comes soon after that event.
Perry is replicating the front-porch strategy adopted by fellow Texan George W. Bush in 1999 as he prepared to run, hosting visits from fundraisers, politicians and activists from various states. He has left most of his visitors with the impression that he is ready to become a candidate, although other prospective candidates have gotten almost to an announcement only to decide not to run.
Advisers to other candidates expect Perry to overshadow everyone but Romney, at least in the initial stages. What comes next is anyone’s guess. “I do believe that Perry will either rise quickly and hang, or rise quickly and pop,” said another candidate’s adviser, who declined to be identified to talk freely about the state of the race.
Perry comes from a state whose economy has performed strongly in recent years and that has also historically been the top fundraising destination for Republican candidates. Both factors are important in a potential face-off with Romney, who has raised far more money than any of his current rivals and who has based his candidacy almost solely on the issue of jobs and the economy.
The fact that Perry could even contemplate jumping into the race at this stage underscores the fact that, for all Romney has done to protect his status as the front-runner, an opening remains for someone to rise up quickly and challenge him.
The other big event of the coming week is a debate Thursday night in Iowa, hosted by Fox News and the Washington Examiner in partnership with the Iowa Republican Party. This will mark the third time that the GOP candidates have debated — and it will be the coming out party for Huntsman, who joined the race after the first two events. Huntsman has struggled mightily since he formed his campaign, gaining little traction in the polls. This week brought more bad news as infighting among his advisers broke into public view thanks to a story in Politico.
Romney and Bachmann were judged the winners of the New Hampshire debate in June. Pawlenty was the clear loser after he declined to challenge Romney over the Massachusetts health-care plan, which strongly resembles the one signed by President Obama last year. This time Romney will likely be the target of several candidates, including both Pawlenty and Huntsman.
Debates are rarely decisive in presidential nomination battles, but in the hothouse environment of Twitter and blog posts, even modestly important events can take on greater significance than in the past. The Iowa debate will draw a sizable media horde, and the instant analysis could be detrimental to any candidate who doesn’t perform well.
Romney has campaigned at a deliberate pace so far, to his advantage. He plans to accelerate his activity in coming weeks, which GOP strategists say is essential. He has focused his criticism on the president but has not been forced to fight for the nomination. August will probably be seen as the time that began to change.
As Reed put it, “This month is the big one because someone is going to get shaken. Then we’ll see what happens.”
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