Just after 7 p.m., Pawlenty walked off the RV in which he has crisscrossed Iowa for much of the past month and into the arms of a waiting crowd at Zeke’s, a performing-arts hall in Ames. Wearing jeans and a brown shirt and hoarse from his marathon campaign schedule, Pawlenty ran through his talking points for the sixth time of the day and then mingled easily with supporters for more than an hour. His earlier appearances featured small but engaged crowds across western Iowa, in a pizza joint or a diner, for instance, where he answered every question before moving on.
“I’m kind of disappointed that he hasn’t taken off in the polls, being so close to Iowa,” said Doug Peters, 54, a police officer who came out with his wife and son to hear Pawlenty speak at Cronk's Cafe in Denison. “But I was impressed with his answers.”
Bachmann held a single public event Wednesday at Competitive Edge, a local printing and promotions company in the Des Moines suburb of Clive. The event did not attract an outside crowd and was attended only by members of the media and about 50 employees of the company.
Bachmann was lively and poised, but the audience was subdued; one of the few signs of enthusiasm came from the campaign operative working the sound board, where he played an extremely loud sequence of John Philip Sousa marches as well as Elvis Presley’s “Promised Land” and “A Little Less Conversation.”
“I haven’t really taken a position yet,” said Lee Black, 40, an art director at Competitive Edge who listened to Bachmann and said he plans to vote in the straw poll. “I was really impressed, but I haven’t made a judgment."
Bachmann and Pawlenty are among eight candidates who will participate in Thursday’s debate; nine Republicans will appear on the straw poll ballot. The GOP field's current front-runner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) are both expected to perform well Saturday, even though Romney won’t even attend the event.
The straw poll has become widely viewed as a make-or-break moment for Pawlenty and an important one for Bachmann: He has lagged well back in all polls, despite starting the year with high expectations, while she is looking to hold her place among the top tier of the field, carrying the good start to her campaign into the fall. More broadly, the event is seen as an important test of candidates’ organizational strength in advance of the critical, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses early next year.
Bachmann and Pawlenty have been working harder than any others in Iowa in recent weeks — although Paul is close behind. Both hail from Minnesota, and both are appealing to the same fiscal and Christian conservatives through a searing critique of President Obama’s leadership and regular professions of their own deep faith.
But while Bachmann typically makes a more passionate plea and incites deep loyalty among her followers, Pawlenty has slowly and methodically built an organization that he hopes will outweigh her appeal.
On Wednesday at Zeke’s, even Pawlenty’s national political director, Jon Seaton, was gathering signatures from supporters to help draw them out to the straw poll Saturday. And Adam Meinecke, 20, a member of the College Republicans at nearby Iowa State University, said he would definitely vote for Pawlenty at the poll because the candidate had called him personally.
“It’s pretty amazing when the actual candidate calls me at work, not a recording, and asks me to come to the straw poll and support him,” Meinecke said. “I get a real feeling from him. He feels like one of us.”
Most Pawlenty supporters like Bachmann, too, and some in attendance said they still hadn’t decided. That was true at the Bachmann event earlier in the day, where even the host, Competitive Edge owner David Greenspon, said he was not necessarily voting for Bachmann.
“She’s bright,” Greenspon said. “She connects well with people.”
But, he said, “I will never agree with anybody who won’t compromise.”