It’s just a straw poll. It doesn’t say much about who will win the Iowa caucuses. It’s not worth the money. Those sentiments about the Ames Straw Poll are the very reasoned arguments of many political insiders who claim Ames is much to do about nothing. But somehow, the candidates and the media never quite buy it. So every four years you see gobs of cash, coverage and excitement about the first significant indication of, at the very least, presidential candidates’organizational abilities.

It’s most important for candidates trying to gain their footing. An ABC News report highlighted the extent to which Tim Pawlenty is pulling out all the stops:

Tim Pawlenty’s campaign today is pushing back at reports that they are getting help from outside groups at the upcoming Ames straw poll.

Craig Robinson at The Iowa Republican reported earlier today that four Pawlenty consultants in Iowa are working for outside interest groups: three of them – Chuck Larson Jr., Karen Slifka and Ed Failor Jr. – for the America Petroleum Institute’s Iowa Energy Forum and a fourth – Nicole Schlinger – for Strong America Now, a debt reduction effort.

The overlap between the Pawlenty campaign and the outside groups is even evident in one of the former Minnesota governor’s campaign ads. Pawlenty’s ad “The Only Candidate” shows two girls wearing blue Iowa Energy Forum shirts.

Both the Iowa Energy Forum and Strong America Now are offering free tickets and transportation to the Aug. 13 straw poll, something that could potentially provide a big boost to Pawlenty: if the campaign can tell supporters to hitch a ride to Ames with one of the outside groups, then they can focus their efforts elsewhere.

Pawlenty’s campaign insist everything is on the up-and-up. In response to Bachmann campaign efforts to push the story, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant reiterated to me the campaign’s initial response: “The Bachmann campaign leveled a malicious accusation that — like a lot of what her campaign says — is absolutely false.” It’s not clear which part is false, but the Pawlenty campaign is right to provide as few details as possible about the Ames vote-getting process.

The entire point of the Ames Straw Poll is to wine and dine, bus in and lavish attention on the straw poll attendees. This is not so much a popularity test as an indication of organizational prowess. And the more that is discussed the less credible the results will feel to voters.

The Pawlety campaign has been systematically downgrading expectations. In May he told donors: “Our goal is not to keep up with Mitt [Romney]. Our goal is to raise enough money to have at least a Buick, if not a Cadillac-level, campaign.”Yesterday he told an Iowa radio talk show host: “So, we’re not going to be the Mercedes or the Lexus candidate when it comes to fundraising, but we’re going to be the Ford Expedition or a good, solid Chevy.” When he gets down to a scooter, you’ll know he’s in deep trouble.

In an email exchange, Conant tried to limit expectations as well: “Ames is an important benchmark on the path to winning Ames, and we hope to show progress. We were 6th in the Des Moines Register poll a few weeks ago and we certainly hope to and need to improve on that -- we’d like to move from the back of the pack closer to the front.” But he also needs to stress a somewhat contradictory message — how much Pawlenty’s been putting into the race: “The Governor’s been working hard to meet as many Iowans as possible over the last three weeks, and we’ll spend the 8 days leading up to the straw poll barn storming the state, talking about his record of results not rhetoric.” In other words he doesn’t need to do all that well, but look how he’s going all in! (The “results not rhetoric “ is a dig at Bachmann.)

However, realistically, Pawlenty can’t finish far behind Bachmann and hope to get back in the race. After engaging in some tough rhetoric, a poor showing in his first head-to-head matchup against her will in essence confirm that Bachmann, not Pawlenty, is the not-Romney candidate for now. Even Conant concedes Pawlenty’s game plan requires a strong performance in Ames: “Every candidate has a different strategy: ours is focused on winning the caucuses, with Ames serving as an important benchmark along the way. We are confident that our strategy and the Governor’s strong record will result in us showing early progress in Ames and ultimately winning the caucuses.”

For other candidates, the goal is to minimize the impact of Ames. Jon Huntsman isn’t competing there and is setting his sights on New Hampshire. Mitt Romney will be on the ballot but isn’t buying space or busing in supporters at Ames; that day he’ll be away in New Hampshire. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s late entry allows him to bypass Ames. I asked his senior advisor David Carney missing Ames would be a barrier to winning Iowa, and if a first or second place finish in the Iowa caucuses would be essential to Perry’s campaign. He said, “We have not even decided when to present our findings [on the viability of a campaign and a game plan for winning the nomination] to the governor. All these political calculations will come to the forefront if the governor moves forward.”

And then there is Bachmann. She’s riding high in the polls and is out with a new ad touting her opposition to raising the debt ceiling. As we’ve seen consistently so far, her position is ultra-conservative but her tone and appearance are soothing. She has, despite a media onslaught, presented herself as poised and likable. Now the test in Ames is whether her organization matches her political skills.

Ames is a sort of canary in the coal mine for campaigns and political watchers. Who’s on life support? Who’s got a fatal defect in his organization? We’ll find out in ten days.