The Ames Straw Poll, the first major moment of the 2012 presidential race, is set for today.

The Ames Straw Poll has become a sort of proving ground for wanna-be Republican candidates, an early test of organizational heft and buzz in the state that will kick off the presidential voting with its caucuses early next year. (Click here for our Fix primer on the history of the straw poll and how the balloting works.)

The 2012 contest — so far one of the sleepiest in modern memory — will, without doubt, change today when the results are read sometime after 6 p.m. eastern.

But how — and why? Our look at the questions that Ames will answer is below.

And don’t forget to tune into the Fix starting around 1 pm eastern time for our live-blog of all the candidate speeches and color — Randy Travis is performing in Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s tent, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is giving away Dairy Queen Blizzards — that make Ames a political junkie’s dream.

* How strong is Bachmann, really?: The Minnesota Congresswoman arrives at Ames as the frontrunner in the Straw Poll. Win and she cements her status as the frontrunner going into next year’s caucuses. Lose — even by a single vote — and the momentum she has built over the last two months of the campaign could be washed away in a moment. What Bachmann undeniably has is passion among her supporters. Hundreds of people waited 45 minutes on a hot Friday afternoon at the Iowa State Fair to hear her speak although unlike many of her rivals, Bachmann spent less than five minutes addressing the crowd and took no questions. What is less clear is whether Bachmann has the organization that will deliver those supporters to Ames to vote for her. She’s only been in the race for two months and has been trying to build a campaign team — in Iowa and nationally — somewhat on the fly. Most people believe that the bigger the electoral universe is today (14,000 and above) the better for Bachmann.

* Is a cornered animal the most dangerous?: Pawlenty needs a win — or a close second place showing — more than any of the other eight candidates on the ballot. Without it, he would — in his own words — likely have to “reassess” his candidacy. Knowing the stakes, Pawlenty and his political team have gone all out over the past month, running a barrage of television commercials aimed at upping his name identification in advance of the Straw Poll. And, there’s little debate among smart Iowa operatives that Pawlenty is the candidate with the best and most experienced Ames organization. A look back at the last two Straw Poll winners — George W. Bush in 1999 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2007 — shows the importance of a skilled organization that knows not just how to get people to Ames but also how to ensure they vote for your candidate. At issue for Pawlenty is whether there is any organic energy behind him heading into the straw vote; can he grow his hard vote total — estimated at 2,000 this morning by Politico — in a meaningful way before all the votes are cast?

* Can Ron Paul go legit?: The Texas Congressman has existed on the periphery of the last two presidential races — beloved by his supporters but with ideas that make expansion into the GOP establishment voting bloc virtually impossible. Today’s Straw Poll gives Paul his best opportunity yet to push his way into the middle of the national conversation about the race. As we wrote yesterday, there is a strain of thinking among GOP activists that Paul could put together roughly 3,000 votes — enough to win if turnout is between 10,000 and 12,000. Such a win would be a major moment for Paul but would likely raise questions about the predictive abilities of the Straw Poll regarding the caucuses to come. (Almost no one thinks Paul could win the Iowa caucuses as he struggles with larger electorates who find his messaging outside of the mainstream of the Republican party.)

* Is there a Huckabee in the field?: Most Iowa operatives believe that Bachmann, Pawlenty and Paul have the top three spots in the Straw Poll locked up — although the order of finish remains up for debate. But, past Straw Polls have proven that surprises are always lurking. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came into the 2007 Straw Poll as a lightly regarded and decidedly underfunded candidate but his second place finish wound up as the story of the day and presaged his eventual victory in Iowa in 2008. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum may have the best chance to re-create some of that Huckabee magic thanks to an experienced Iowa campaign team and his base among social conservatives in the state. Santorum’s problem, of course, is that Bachmann runs in the same ideological lane as he does but has star power and a fresh-faced appeal than he can’t match. There is some chatter that businessman Herman Cain might surprise but the resignations of his top two Straw Poll staffers roughly a month ago raises questions about his ability to turn out his voters today.

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