Iowa straw poll: A guide to the big week in GOP presidential politics

It’s the sort of week that could shake up the volatile Republican presidential field: the inaugural televised debate in Iowa, followed days later by the Iowa straw poll that will mark the first clash of organization muscle and popularity in the crucial, leadoff caucus state.

Among the questions that could be answered: Will a clear challenger to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney emerge? Is Michele Bachmann for real? Can Tim Pawlenty reignite his campaign? Is Rick Perry the political savior Republicans crave? And will some of the lesser-known, single-digit polling Republicans drop out?

Here’s some of what to watch for – and what’s at stake – in the GOP presidential race this week:

Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor is the frontrunner of the GOP field and has opted to skip competing in Saturday’s straw poll. After all, he won the nonbinding contest four years ago, only to go on to lose the actual Iowa caucuses in 2008, en route to ceding the GOP nomination. So he starts this week traipsing across New Hampshire, where he’s ignoring the Republican field in favor of pounding President Obama on the economy.

But Romney’s not ignoring Iowa entirely: He’ll be there for Thursday’s televised debate, and likely be the target of attacks from many in the field seeking the mantle of his challenger-in-chief.


Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota congresswoman has been the early surprise of the field, buoyed by a June Des Moines Register poll that had her virtually tied with Romney in Iowa. She launched her candidacy in the Hawkeye state and has been campaigning hard there, where she hopes her brand of unapologetic economic and Christian conservatism will catch fire. But her strong early standing carries some risk: Anything but a finish near the top of the pack at the straw poll would likely be viewed as a loss.

What’s more, her early surge has raised questions about her viability as a national candidate. This week, she graces the cover of Newsweek (but with the headline “The Queen of Rage”) and is the subject of a long New Yorker profile (which describes her campaign as “a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature”).

Tim Pawlenty: Among those making the loudest electability case against Bachmann is Tim Pawlenty, who served as Minnesota’s governor when Bachmann was a state legislator there. Neighboring Iowa is supposed to be the springboard for Pawlenty’s presidential bid. Instead, he’s been trailing Bachmann in the polls. And so he has gone on the attack, calling her record “nonexistent” in a nationally televised interview. The debate Thursday also marks a chance for Pawlenty to take the fight to his opponents face-to-face. He stumbled in the only previously televised debate, when he failed to stand behind his past criticism of Romney’s healthcare law in Massachusetts as “Obamneycare.”

Some are calling the straw poll an early make-or-break moment for Pawlenty. As Paul West and Mark Z. Barabak wrote in Monday’s Times, “Without a strong showing in the straw vote, Pawlenty may find it difficult to attract the money he’ll need to keep going.”

Jon Huntsman Jr.: The former Utah governor isn’t competing in the Ames straw poll and isn’t expected to register much more than a blip there. But the late-entrant Republican, who until earlier this year served as Obama’s ambassador to China, will take his first turn in a televised debate. (The last one occurred before he was a candidate.) It also marks an opportunity for him to turn the story line about his candidacy away from the internal turmoil and missteps that have characterized his slow start.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor isn’t even a declared candidate yet, but a strong write-in showing among his supporters at the straw poll – or a middling performance by everyone else there and at the debate – could boost his chances of entering the race as a would-be GOP savior. He’s making all the moves of a candidate, including hosting a 15,000-strong national prayer meeting over the weekend where he offered a prayer for President Obama and the nation.

Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Thaddeus McCotter: The list of candidates looking this week to make a splash, contradict conventional wisdom and show a pulse in the presidential sweepstakes is long.

Herman Cain, the former pizza executive and talk-show host who drew early backing from “tea party” faithful, has said “I need to finish in the top three” in the straw poll – or reevaluate his role in the race. He had finished third in the June Des Moines Register poll that showed Bachmann and Romney nearly tied in Iowa.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman who ran for president in 2008, is also shooting for a top-three showing, telling the Des Moines Register he’d be “rather saddened” to finish any lower. He finished fifth in 2007.

Aides to Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, told the New York Times that he is hoping for a fourth-place finish, not the kind of spot that typically catapults one to a presidential nomination.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who’s had a summer of internal implosion – many of his top advisers resigned en masse – is hoping for something, anything to break his campaign’s downward spiral. He is in the debate, but hasn’t reserved a spot in the straw poll.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) has the inverse problem. He’s bought a spot in the staw poll but with little standing in the polls he’s not been offered an invitation to the televised debate and is struggling to be heard from at all.