The Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, on Thursday night represents the last high-profile chance for candidates to woo the state's voters ahead of Saturday's straw poll.
For GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, the debate is about showing voters in Iowa he isn't ignoring the state. For Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), it's a chance to build momentum ahead of Saturday's contest, a crucial steppingstone to a January win in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. And for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, it might just be a chance to stay in the race.
Pawlenty likely has the most riding on both the straw poll and the debate.
While Bachmann has the momentum in Iowa, Pawlenty has the organization — the candidate has a large turnout operation in the state. That makes the debate even more important for him.
“Tim Pawlenty needs this debate to launch him to boost his turnout for the straw poll so he can live to fight another day,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director. “He needs to be aggressive and make up for what happened in the New Hampshire debate.”
Pawlenty faltered in the previous presidential debate when he shrank from a chance to repeat his attack that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, backed healthcare reforms in that state that amounted to “ObamneyCare.”
Pawlenty has since suffered from the perception that he doesn’t have the spine to take on President Obama head to head. This is his chance to change that image.
While Romney is not participating in the straw poll, he will likely compete in the state’s caucuses. It will become harder for him to skip the state when Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race, because Bachmann will no longer be the only big-name contender there.
The former Massachusetts governor is well-known in Iowa after investing heavily there in 2007, but has been notably absent this year.
Steve Scheffler, the president of the socially conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Romney needs to reassure Iowa voters he will be active in the state and convince them he is a true conservative on both social and fiscal issues.
“There’s a little bit of concern his statement on raising the debt limit came a little late,” said Scheffler.
Bachmann’s strong New Hampshire debate performance accelerated her campaign’s momentum. Her ability to win the straw poll will rest more on her recently constructed field organization than on further exciting voters in the Hawkeye State. Because of this, she may need to accomplish less in the debate performance than the other candidates.
But while Bachmann has one good debate on her resume, this is the first time she will face the scrutiny that comes with being a front-runner. She has left most of her Wednesday and Thursday schedule open, presumably to prepare for the debate.
“She’s the one who has to worry about a gaffe,” said Robinson. “The last debate came easily for her, highlighted her strengths. This debate, after being on the campaign trail, there’s plenty of material they could go into and ask her about.”
The rest of the field: Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), businessman Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Much of the attention will be on Pawlenty, Romney and Bachmann, but several other candidates have a chance to shine in Iowa.
Ames will be the first debate for Huntsman, who is skipping Iowa entirely in his campaign. Huntsman has failed to gain any traction since he entered the race, and Thursday serves as an opportunity to gain some needed attention.
Cain drew attention for his strong debate performance in South Carolina and is popular with Tea Party voters but has struggled to gain name recognition outside of his base. Still, he's polled better than Huntsman, a former ambassador to China who has won much more media attention.
Paul and Santorum could do well at the straw poll. Both have spent much time in the state in the last few months and have strong appeal to engaged political groups — Paul does well with small-government groups and Tea Party supporters, while Santorum has close ties to the state’s religious conservatives. But like Huntsman and Cain, neither is regarded as a top-tier contender.
“They definitely need to find that lightning in a bottle,” said Robinson.
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