AMES, IOWA -- The 2012 marathon is officially underway here in the Hawkeye State. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Des Moines yesterday afternoon, I was immersed in presidential primary mania. A squad of Thad McCotter volunteers trekked through the airport. A Ron Paul bumper sticker passed me on route 35. My inbox became cluttered with invitations to political barbeques, concerts, and meet-n-greets. And literally the very first image I saw when I flipped on my hotel room television was this Ames-centric Michele Bachmann spot:
As a prelude to Saturday's much-hyped straw poll, Fox News and the Washington Examiner will host a two-hour GOP debate tonight, starting at 9pm ET. Eight GOP contenders will participate: Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. There are several storylines to track as this long political weekend unfolds:
Bachmann - Can she duplicate her exceptional New Hampshire debate performance, which parlayed her into the top tier? Bachmann is an Iowa native, enjoys strong grassroots support among the state's large evangelical base, and is widely expected to win the straw poll on Saturday. Absent a conspicuous stumble, this should be a good weekend for her.
Cain - After bursting out of the gates with a terrific debate showing in South Carolina, Herman Cain has faltered. His New Hampshire debate performance was shaky, and his campaign has since witnessed a significant exodus of Iowa staffers. Can he turn things around before it's too late?
Huntsman - Tonight will mark the former Utah Governor's first appearance on stage with his competitors. Will he adhere to his no-attacks philosophy? Huntsman's campaign has struggled out of the gate, and has been beset with internal strife. But hey, at least he's won the blockbuster endorsement of Jeb Bush's son.
Romney - He's still the frontrunner, so he'll (again) have a target on his back. Romney's top dog status certainly didn't seem to rattle him last time out -- but will the others pull punches again? Don't count on it. Might this potentially damaging Politico piece come up during the discussion? Quite possibly, considering the inevitable series of questions about the nation's recent S&P downgrade. Romney isn't participating in Saturday's straw poll, so his camp says he's approaching this as a low-pressure exercise. But if he's somewhat writing off Iowa, why the ethanol pandering?
The others - Two GOP giants will cast shadows over this weekend's proceedings, even though neither is a declared candidate. Rick Perry, who will announce his presidential bid in South Carolina on the same day as the straw poll, has had supporters laying groundwork in Iowa all week. His entry into the race is already a ubiquitous source of buzz here, and may even seep into the debate. Meanwhile, another non-candidate is rolling into Hawkeyeland this weekend, and will reportedly
campaign atvisit the State Fair on Friday. For someone who isn't running, the time and place of her bus stop is rather curious indeed.
Pawlenty - I've saved Tim Pawlenty for last because he has the most at stake in Ames this weekend -- by far. T-Paw entered this race as a top-tier candidate, but has failed to gain virtually any of the traction one might expect from a major contender. His narrowing path to the nomination requires a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses next winter -- a task complicated by Michele Bachmann's presence in the field. The two Minnesotans, who share little mutual affection, are vying for a crucial -- and common -- core constituency. So far, Bachmann has soaked up most of the attention and momentum, badly hampering Pawlenty's ability to break out of his rut. In order to jumpstart his campaign, Pawlenty needs to start hitting home runs. Small ball won't do. A stand-out debate performance and a top two (or three, at the absolute worst) straw poll finish may be tall order, but Pawlenty really must achieve both. To say that there's a palpable sense of urgency about Team Pawlenty would be an understatement.
At a rally in Ames last night, the former Minnesota Governor told about 100 supporters that he expects to do "very well" on Saturday. I asked a top Pawlenty aide what the campaign's working definition of "very well" might be under the circumstances. He declined to issue any explicit expectations, but told me Pawlenty hopes to vault "from the bottom half of the pack back towards the top." The aide hastened to talk up Bachmann's grassroots enthusiasm, and pointed to Ron Paul's enviable track record in straw polls -- perhaps telegraphing his candidate's perceived top competitors on Saturday.
During his remarks, Pawlenty offered sharp criticisms of President Obama and asserted that tested executive leadership is needed to pluck the country from its current morass. To that end, T-Paw has rolled out a telling slogan: "Results, Not Rhetoric." Its message is a clear attempt to draw a contrast with Bachmann, who's a longtime legislative backbencher with a flair for conservative stridency. Unlike many of his rivals, Pawlenty said, "I've actually done this stuff," referring to his record as a two-term chief executive in a liberal state. Will this two-pronged appeal (electability and experience) resonate with voters? Time will tell, but the clock is very much ticking.
Here is video of Pawlenty's full stump speech at that Ames rally -- recorded by my friend and colleague, Ed Morrissey. Try it on for size, then weigh in: Is T-Paw worth a second look, or still just...meh?
See you tonight during our live debate coverage. We'll post an open thread here on the Tipsheet, which will feature my Twitter feed and your comments. Even if you're not a Twitter user, you can follow my debate live-tweeting HERE. If you are on Twitter, follow me: @guypbenson
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography