This Thursday, Republican Presidential candidates are set to take the stage for a debate in Ames, Iowa ahead of Saturday’s influential Ames Straw Poll.
Eight Republicans met the criteria to participate in the debate hosted by Fox News: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman. Lower tier candidates Thad McCotter, Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer did not meet the minimum polling requirement to participate in the debate.
The debate and the subsequent straw poll will surely make or break several campaigns. While the straw poll has no electoral impact in the race, it has historically been a testing ground for a candidate’s viability and organizational strength.
Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have the most to lose heading into the weekend. Political pundits have predicted for weeks that Bachmann will win the Ames Straw Poll, drawing support from energized Tea Party activists and conservative evangelicals. These expectations may be a double-edged sword for Bachmann. The bar has been set so high that a less than stellar performance in the poll will reflect badly on the Congresswoman and raise doubts about her enduring viability in the race.
Pawlenty, whose campaign boasts some of the Republican Party’s top campaign strategists, has a strong presence in Iowa. Sarah Granger Huckabee, the daughter of Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Caucuses in 2007, has been at the helm of Pawlenty’s efforts in the state. If Pawlenty cannot pull off an impressive showing at Ames, the future of his campaign may be jeopardy.
Mitt Romney, who is slated to participate in the debate but is downplaying the straw poll, is still expected to pull in enough votes to show his campaign’s strength. Romney has been at the front of the pack in national polls since he entered the race. Romney enjoys high name recognition among Republican voters and his campaign is well organized and well financed. While he may not be participating in the Ames Straw Poll, he is still leads in many polls to win the Iowa Caucuses in January, the first official contest of the race.
Rick Santorum may have the most to gain at Ames. His campaign has struggled to gain steam and in the last quarter his fundraising numbers put him at the back of the pack, pulling in barely $500,000. (By comparison, Mitt Romney, who leads in fundraising, raked in $18.25 million over the same period.) Santorum recently relocated his family to Iowa to concentrate his campaign efforts in the state. While his socially conservative message should resonate with Iowa voters, he faces a crowded field of candidates who similarly share his commitment to social issues, including the right to life. Breaking into the top 3 at Ames could revitalize the Santorum campaign, which at this point does not appear to have a path to the nomination.
Herman Cain, who just months ago was surging in the race, hit a number of stumbling blocks after several high-profile gaffes, including widely-condemned anti-Muslim comments, mistaking the language of the Declaration of Independence for that of the Constitution and admitting his own confusion over foreign policy. Cain’s base of support was largely comprised of Tea Party activists. However, upon the entry of Michele Bachmann, a founding member of the House Tea Party Caucus, Cain’s support began to dwindle. Possibly the only way Cain’s campaign can continue is if he delivers an outstanding debate performance, like he did in the very first GOP debate, and defy expectations in the straw poll.
Overshadowing the debate and straw poll is Texas Governor Rick Perry who is poised to announce his intentions on Saturday at an event in South Carolina. With the Ames Straw Poll possibly becoming the death knell for several campaigns, now may be Perry’s moment.