Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is looking ahead to what could be the most important week in his presidential campaign as he tries to make an impact in the Ames straw poll and nationally televised primary debate on Thursday. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz reported:

Tim Pawlenty began the most important week of his presidential campaign with a cinnamon roll the size of a loaf of bread and a side order of expectations.

The setting was the Machine Shed restaurant, famous for its healthy — check that, generous — portions of Iowa staples: meat and potatoes and eggs. Pawlenty had assembled a group of reporters for breakfast before setting out for another full day of appearances aimed at rallying more Iowans to support his candidacy at Saturday’s straw poll in Ames.

In the careful way candidates speak about events that could make or break their campaigns, Pawlenty said his goal Saturday is to “do well.” He wants only to “move up substantially” from his standing in a Des Moines Register poll taken earlier in the summer that showed him in sixth place among the Republican hopefuls.

That shouldn’t be hard. Only two of the people ahead of him in that survey — Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — are actively competing in the straw poll. Some of the rest — Mitt Romney, for example — have decided Ames is not worth the investment of a million dollars or more. Others, like Newt Gingrich, are not real factors in the race at this point.

As he jousted with reporters, Pawlenty tried repeatedly to calibrate the significance of Ames — significant enough so that if he does “well,” he can claim a big victory; insignificant enough that if he doesn’t, he will try to write it off as a contest that only occasionally predicts the winner of the Iowa caucuses or of the GOP nomination.

Over and over, he was asked about the impact of a disappointing finish on Saturday. Over and over he tried to leave himself room to move forward. “You guys get all hung up on a specific spot,” he said. “If the other two are viewed as not long-term, credible national candidates, that’s less significant than if they are.”

Pawlenty is struggling to counter the rise in popularity of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in Iowa, where he has spent over a year courting voters and fundraising. As the Post’s Michael Leahy explained:

The campaign bus rolled to a stop in an Iowa parking lot. Earlier that day, recorded phone messages had been left with supporters in Sioux County, alerting them that, while the outdoor rally would proceed, unforeseen events would prevent the candidate from appearing. About 70 people — a large crowd by Iowa standards for so early in a presidential campaign — had shown up to stand in the sweltering heat anyway.

It was the type of fervent anticipation long yearned for by backers of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has patiently courted Republican leaders and voters here for more than a year. But this was not Pawlenty’s bus, or his crowd. These people had come for a contender who had yet to make a single appearance in Sioux County.

A couple of minutes later, the candidate’s voice, coming from a telephone, floated out of the speakers in the parking lot. “Hi, everyone. This is Michele Bachmann,” she said, and soon the lot was filled with hearty applause.

As a critical week begins in the Republican presidential contest, the broadening perception in Iowa is that enthusiasm for Pawlenty has sagged recently, imperiling his candidacy, while Bachmann has soared to front-runner status here. There are growing doubts as well about the Pawlenty campaign’s organizational efforts, once regarded as its chief strength.

But two upcoming events offer Pawlenty the chance to rebound dramatically against the Minnesota congresswoman, to shore up enthusiasm and to show off his vaunted organization.

First, on Thursday night, the two will take part in a high-stakes debate alongside a field of rivals that will include former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the national front-runner; former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum; congressman Ron Paul of Texas; businessman Herman Cain; and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr.

Two days later will come the Ames Straw Poll, an early contest that will gauge enthusiasm and serve as a test for a campaign’s organizational skills. Anything less than a second-place finish for Pawlenty may have a dire effect on his ability to woo contributors for a campaign having difficulty securing big-ticket donors. And although some of Pawlenty’s backers think he can still win here, others do not rule out the possibility that he could sink to third or fourth place, behind Paul, Cain or Santorum.

Many analysts predict that if Pawlenty does not perform well his campaign, may not gain the momentum necessary to catapult into contention for nomination. As Jonathan Bernstein said in the Plum Line blog:

In a process that features more than its share of quirks and oddities, perhaps nothing is quite as quirky and odd as the Ames Straw Poll. Republicans in Iowa have, for years, bused in their supporters and paid their tickets in order to contest the Straw Poll, which may or may not have any effect at all.

This year, however, it’s easy to watch Ames because there’s really only one name to pay any attention to: Tim Pawlenty, who is trying to go from Minnesota Meh to something at least a little more exciting.

Here’s the deal: Only three of the current field of candidates — Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and unannounced but running Rick Perry — are really plausible nominees. Yes, Michele Bachmann is surging in the polls and getting tons of attention, but there’s just no precedent for someone with a similar résumé actually being nominated. Plenty of precedent for hype, but none for actually winning. So I’m not all that interested in how Bachmann does at Ames. Nor am I interested in how Ron Paul will do; we’ve seen this movie before, and we know that Paul’s loyalists are loud but not numerous within the GOP. There are a whole bunch of other candidates running, but none of them really appears to have a reasonable chance.

So, it’s Pawlenty, Romney and Perry. Of those, however, only Pawlenty is contesting the Straw Poll. And Pawlenty appears to be clearly behind those two in every objective measure, from polling to fundraising to media attention. I wouldn’t quite say that Pawlenty “must” finish in any particular place at Ames. What matters for Pawlenty — at this point, all that matters — is whether major Republican players will take him seriously for the next several months. If not, he’s basically finished. Really, no candidate can win without party elites in his or her corner, but it’s hard to imagine Pawlenty, in particular, raising enough money to compete without a little something to crow about at this point.

More from The Washington Post

The Fix: The Ames Straw Poll, explained

The Take: Pawlenty tries to rally more Iowans

Test your knowledge of Ames straw poll