When Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) won the Ames straw poll, it seemed that the Iowa caucuses might become an afterthought. If the Tea Party favorite had a lock on the first contest, why should others seriously contest her there? But a lot has happened since Ames.

In a Public Policy Polling survey: “The race is pretty close four ways in Iowa but Rick Perry is the new favorite among Republican voters in the state. Among announced candidates he’s at 22% to 19% for Mitt Romney, 18% for Michele Bachmann, and 16% for Ron Paul. Further back are Herman Cain at 7%, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum at 5%, and Jon Huntsman at 3%. If you throw Sarah Palin into the mix the numbers are pretty similar with Perry at 21%, Romney at 18%, Bachmann at 15%, Paul at 12%, and Palin registering at only 10%.”

If this is an accurate gauge of a tightening contest, it may make sense for both Perry and Romney to put some effort into the race. Should either or both of those candidates top Bachmann in a state she is now expected to win, she could face a swift blow to her chances at the nomination.

Bachmann has no illusions about the competition. A spokesman tells me that her schedule for the next month will be dictated by debates in California (9/7), Tampa (9/12) and Orlando (9/22). He nevertheless vowed that she was “going to work hard to schedule trips to Iowa around those dates.”

Romney’s schedule suggests he still does not want to invest large amounts of money or time (and thereby raise expectations) there. So far he has only made two trips (one of those was in conjunction with the debate). The campaign insists, however, that Romney will have a sufficient presence there to show he’s a superior candidate. While his team insists that he wants to win wherever he is on the ballot, there is no doubt that he wants to avoid a repeat of 2008, when he set high expectations and then lost to Mike Huckabee. Now, in the event Sarah Palin manages to get into the race, the further subdivision of the Tea Party and social conservative electorate (among Palin, Bachmann, Perry and underdog Rick Santorum) may cause Romney to rethink his approach. Absent that, however, it is most likely he will devote most of his time and resources to his must-win state, New Hampshire.

Perry is the wild card here. Does he want to go face-to-face with Bachmann, attempting to make up her lead in organizing and time on the ground? His campaign spokesman would only say this to me: “Governor Perry plans to campaign vigorously in Iowa and throughout the country. We will have the resources necessary to run a credible campaign and make staff announcements soon.” That sounds like he is keeping his options open. This Saturday, however, he’ll be back in Iowa. The Des Moines Register reports:

The slow week on the Iowa campaign trail heats up this weekend when Texas Gov. Rick Perry joins three other speakers at the Polk County GOP summer picnic on Saturday.

“We received a call from a member of the governor’s staff confirming,” organizer Darrell Kearney told The Des Moines Register [Tuesday] morning. . . .

Here’s how Polk County GOP officials described Perry in their news release:

“Rick Perry is a staunch fiscal and social conservative, and the only governor since World War II to reduce state general revenue spending.

Governor Perry has a strong record on job creation. His support for low taxes, reasonable regulations, a predictable civil litigation system and an educated workforce has produced a business climate consistently ranked among the best in the nation. . . . Since June 2009, more than 40 percent of the net new jobs created in America have been created in Texas, and today, the Lone Star State is a magnet for corporate relocations.

Texas, under his leadership, has been in the spotlight in recent weeks because for nine straight years, Texas has led the nation in exports to foreign countries among the 50 states. More jobs were created in Texas than in all 49 other states combined.”

That sort of billing is hard to pass up. Moreover, his skills as a retail politician may be well suited to Iowa. He impressed the attendees at the Black Hawk Lincoln Day dinner, outshining Bachmann. A conservative insider who traveled with Perry recently told me his one-on-one political skills are considerable. “He kissed every baby,” the insider told me. “He’s very agreeable.”

In fact, the only candidate of the three who can afford to come in third is Romney. Perry would dearly love to knock off Bachmann, and perhaps short-circuit her candidacy, but so long as he finishes ahead of Romney he’ll preserve his reputation as a success with social conservatives. On the other hand, should he come in behind Romney in a state in which the Massachusetts governor is so obviously playing coy, questions will quickly surface about his organization and his appeal outside Texas.

It is important to keep in mind that the Iowa caucuses are not terribly useful in predicting the eventual GOP presidential nominee. Huckabee (2008), Bob Dole (1998) and George H.W. Bush (1980) could not convert wins in the caucuses to nomination victories. But that said, in a competitive race with no clear front-runner, it is always better to win than lose an early contest.