DES MOINES, Iowa — Start your stopwatches. The next seventy-two hours are by far the most important of the 2012 Republican presidential race, to date.

In the next three days, the following events will occur:

* Eight Republican candidates will take the stage tonight in Ames for the second major debate of the presidential primary fight. It will be the debut appearance on the stage for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

* The Ames Straw Poll, the first organizational test of the GOP field in Iowa, is set for Saturday. It’s a make or break moment for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty who badly needs a win or a close second to build momentum.

* Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, ever the pot-stirrer, is set to visit the Iowa State Fair, likely on Friday. Palin won't be on the Ames Straw Poll ballot — of course, people can vote for her as a write-in — but her decision to stop in the state is sure to stoke 2012 talk .

* Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to send a very strong signal in a speech on Saturday in South Carolina that he will run for president. He will then head to New Hampshire and finish his weekend in Iowa — a schedule that should clear up any doubt regarding his future political plans.

In short, the next three days will likely feature genuine movement in the tectonic plates of a largely static race so far.

Moments like these matter because they are a rare time when caucus and primary voters are paying attention to the race and have an opportunity to compare the candidates side by side.

Don’t believe us? Think back to the days leading up to the June presidential debate in New Hampshire. Pawlenty was regarded as the rapidly emerging second choice to those voters who weren’t sold on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was seen as a fringe candidate with limited appeal outside of her narrow base.

Bachmann shined in that debate; Pawlenty stumbled. Now, roughly two months later, Bachmann is still riding that wave of momentum while Pawlenty is fighting for his political life.

While Pawlenty clearly has the most riding on his performance in tonight’s debate and Saturday’s straw poll — weak performances in both could mean the end for him — he’s far from the only one playing a high stakes political game.

Bachmann has spent the last 60 days as the “it” candidate in the Republican field, with polling in Iowa and New Hampshire suggesting she is firmly ensconced in second place behind Romney in the fight for the nomination (if you don’t include Perry).

But Bachmann will face far more scrutiny in tonight's debate — from the moderators and her fellow candidates — than in the June get-together. And, she must deal with the high expectations at the straw poll; anything short of a first-place finish could take some of the bloom off the Bachmann rose.

For Perry, his pseudo-announcement is aimed at taking the eyes of the political world away from the action in Ames. But, is he up to the task of running for president under the glare of the national media? And can he sell his decidedly southern roots to voters in a state like New Hampshire? Perry’s extended “I’m thinking about it” approach to 2012 means that he will get little to no time to feel his way in the race. He enters as a top-tier candidate and any flubs in the early stages — and by early we mean the first 48 hours — could send him down the undesirable path traveled by Fred Thompson (R) in 2008 and Wes Clark (D) in 2004.

Romney, the race’s frontrunner, is likely taking a “no news is good news” approach to the next three days. While he will almost certainly be a target at the debate tonight, he is skipping the Ames Straw Poll that he won in 2007. The ideal scenario for Romney is a debate where Pawlenty (and others) go after Ames-and-Iowa frontrunner Bachmann, while leaving him largely alone. Romney has avoided engaging any of his rivals to this point and would like nothing more than to spend these next few days talking about President Obama and the economy.

Palin is, as always, the wild card in these political calculations. It’s not clear whether her last minute trip to Iowa is meant to gauge support for a potential bid, an effort to upstage the Republicans in the field, both or neither. Palin will be the biggest draw — by far — of the state fair and could well steal some of the news coverage in and out of the state that the people already running covet.

Put simply: Every candidate in (and not-yet-in) the race has had the next three days circled on their calendars for months. Impressions made between now and Sunday morning could be lasting ones — for good and for bad.

Another Blue Dog down?: Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) won’t commit to running for reelection, and if he retired he would be just the latest Blue Dog Democrat to leave Congress and give Republicans a chance to reap the benefits.

His retirement could give the GOP a winnable seat. That’s because he’s drawn into the same district with Rep. Jim Costa (D), who would otherwise be likely to run in a swing district.

If Cardoza retires, Costa can run in his safe Democratic district, the 16th, leaving that swing district — the 21st — up for grabs in an open-seat race.

Already, Blue Dog Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is running for Senate and Blue Dog Reps .Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) are retiring, leaving three seats where Republicans will be favored to win.

The Blue Dog Caucus was cut in half after the 2010 election, down to 25 members.

Romney administration promoted tax increases: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s (R) presidential campaign has a headache on its hands, after the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that his gubernatorial administration promoted the state’s tax increases while appealing for a positive credit rating from Standard and Poor’s.

In 2004, Romney’s administration noted the state raised more than a billion dollars of revenue in each of 2002, 2003 and 2004 thanks to piece of legislation passed in 2002.

The Journal’s report notes that Romney came out against tax increases when the debt limit deal was being negotiated recently.

In the end, it’s just the latest episode of something from Romney’s more centrist past coming back to haunt him. Look for it in an opponent’s campaign ad in the near future.


Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the conservative resistance to the debt limit deal, says he’s not overly optimistic about the so-called “super committee’s” prospects.

Rudy Giuliani, still considering a run for president, is making some noise in New Hampshire. Which is interesting because Giuliani and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) are close.

An independent expenditure group in Kentucky goes after Republican governor candidate David Williams with a six-figure ad buy.

The speaking schedule for Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll is posted.

Stephen Colbert’s super PAC goes up with its first ad in Iowa.

Businessman John Brunner is set to enter the GOP primary to face Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Brunner is the wildcard in a primary that is currently between Rep. Todd Akin and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman.

A footnote to our item in yesterday’s Morning Fix: A new Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll shows a record low number of people say they are inclined to vote to reelect their member of Congress — just 17 percent. Gallup, asking a slightly different question, showed 54 percent of people thought their member deserved another term.


Congress less popular than, well, so many things” — Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

Romney returns to Iowa and says he’ll be back” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Romney’s woman problem” — Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe

The most wanted 2012 campaign donors” — Maggie Haberman and Kenneth P. Vogel, Politico

Deficit reduction ‘supercommittee’ stocked with congressional veterans” — Paul Kane, Washington Post