Chief correspondent

The contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, until now a sleepy, shapeless and uninspired affair punctuated by comedic interludes, turns serious this month. A debate, a straw poll in Iowa and the possible entry into the race of Texas Gov. Rick Perry are likely to make the coming weeks the most consequential yet in the campaign.

By the end of August, more will be known about almost every aspect of the race, including the identity of the politician best positioned to challenge the front-runner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the staying power of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and the likely final makeup of the field.

The Republican candidates have been overshadowed for most of the summer by the tense debt-ceiling debate in Washington, fears of a U.S. default and growing worries about the U.S. and global economies. Now, with the first votes in the nomination battle less than six months away, the candidates will feel growing pressure not only to demonstrate their vote-getting appeal but also to spell out how they would grapple with the huge problems the next president will face.

“We are fast approaching act two of the primary cycle,” said Todd Harris, a GOP strategist not currently aligned with any candidate. “The next couple weeks will be revealing in terms of who has what it takes to have a second act and who doesn’t.”

Romney’s front-runner status seems secure for the time being, given his overall strength in the polls, his financial advantage, his New Hampshire base and the discipline with which he has run his campaign to date. But his vulnerabilities intensify the competition to become his principal challenger.

The race has been marked by two realities — the lack of enthusiasm for Romney as the potential GOP standard-bearer and the inability of any of the other candidates to take advantage of that perceived weakness. Instead, the GOP campaign has been more a story of those who have tried and so far failed, as well as those who chose not even to try.

The list of non-starters includes several potentially formidable candidates — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — and a flamboyant wild card named Donald Trump. Add Sarah Palin to that list, unless she suddenly shows real interest in running.

The list of those who have fallen short of early expectations includes two former state executives, Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Of all those, Pawlenty has the most at risk over the next week. His path to the nomination depends on victory in the Iowa caucuses next winter. But he has remained in single digits in polls there and nationally. In the past two months, he has been eclipsed by fellow Minnesotan Bachmann, who entered the race in June and leapt to the top of the polls in Iowa.

Bachmann is as dependent as Pawlenty on a winter victory in Iowa, and the two are now on a collision course as they head toward Saturday’s straw poll in Ames. Given the history of the poll, it’s not likely that both can claim a victory next weekend, though both may try.

Scott Reed, who managed Robert C. Dole’s 1996 campaign, sees Pawlenty as the one with the most to lose. “The Iowa caucus can make a candidate,” he said. “The straw poll can break a candidate, and Pawlenty is in the danger zone.”

The risk for Pawlenty of a less-than-stellar showing in Ames is the likelihood that his fundraising, already challenged, would take a further hit. He will have poured considerable resources into the straw poll and without a strong result could struggle to raise the money to compete effectively in the caucuses and primaries next year.

Others now also see Bachmann with much at stake. Her emergence as a favorite of both tea party activists and Christian conservatives has significantly raised expectations for her performance in Ames. One Iowa Republican strategist, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely about the upcoming poll, said, “There’s no doubt that it’s Bachmann” who would be hurt more by a poor showing.

The wild card at the straw poll will be Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose small but passionate following could return big dividends in an event where a few thousand votes can vault someone into second place. Both the Pawlenty and Bachmann campaigns will worry about Paul on Saturday.

Romney, Huntsman and Gingrich are not competing actively in the straw poll. The ballot will include their names, however, as well as those of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

Perry’s decision looms as an even bigger event, one that could dramatically redraw the race. His entry could easily eclipse the outcome of the straw poll, particularly if it comes soon after that event.

Perry is replicating the front-porch strategy adopted by fellow Texan George W. Bush in 1999 as he prepared to run, hosting visits from fundraisers, politicians and activists from various states. He has left most of his visitors with the impression that he is ready to become a candidate, although other prospective candidates have gotten almost to an announcement only to decide not to run.

Advisers to other candidates expect Perry to overshadow everyone but Romney, at least in the initial stages. What comes next is anyone’s guess. “I do believe that Perry will either rise quickly and hang, or rise quickly and pop,” said another candidate’s adviser, who declined to be identified to talk freely about the state of the race.

Perry comes from a state whose economy has performed strongly in recent years and that has also historically been the top fundraising destination for Republican candidates. Both factors are important in a potential face-off with Romney, who has raised far more money than any of his current rivals and who has based his candidacy almost solely on the issue of jobs and the economy.

The fact that Perry could even contemplate jumping into the race at this stage underscores the fact that, for all Romney has done to protect his status as the front-runner, an opening remains for someone to rise up quickly and challenge him.

The other big event of the coming week is a debate Thursday night in Iowa, hosted by Fox News and the Washington Examiner in partnership with the Iowa Republican Party. This will mark the third time that the GOP candidates have debated — and it will be the coming out party for Huntsman, who joined the race after the first two events. Huntsman has struggled mightily since he formed his campaign, gaining little traction in the polls. This week brought more bad news as infighting among his advisers broke into public view thanks to a story in Politico.

Romney and Bachmann were judged the winners of the New Hampshire debate in June. Pawlenty was the clear loser after he declined to challenge Romney over the Massachusetts health-care plan, which strongly resembles the one signed by President Obama last year. This time Romney will likely be the target of several candidates, including both Pawlenty and Huntsman.

Debates are rarely decisive in presidential nomination battles, but in the hothouse environment of Twitter and blog posts, even modestly important events can take on greater significance than in the past. The Iowa debate will draw a sizable media horde, and the instant analysis could be detrimental to any candidate who doesn’t perform well.

Romney has campaigned at a deliberate pace so far, to his advantage. He plans to accelerate his activity in coming weeks, which GOP strategists say is essential. He has focused his criticism on the president but has not been forced to fight for the nomination. August will probably be seen as the time that began to change.

As Reed put it, “This month is the big one because someone is going to get shaken. Then we’ll see what happens.”


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