GOP presidential field's first cuts could ride on Iowa straw poll results

AMES, Iowa -- Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll is a high-stakes affair for two GOP candidates: If Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty don’t finish strong, their presidential campaigns could be mortally wounded.

The straw poll is the first major test of candidates’ organizations in the early caucus state, and both Bachmann and Pawlenty have been running hard to win the event. For Bachmann, anything short of victory will put blood in the water on the same day that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to officially join the Republican field. 

ADVERTISEMENT
With the buzz around Perry, Bachmann needs to flex some muscle in Ames to remain at the head in the Iowa polls and stay a top-tier contender.

Pawlenty has spent more time in the state than nearly every other candidate, and has the largest field operation of the participating candidates (Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are not competing). If Pawlenty can’t win or finish a close second his already weak stream of campaign donations could dry up entirely.

Pawlenty admitted as much Friday morning when he told an audience of journalists that he would have to "reassess" the direction of his campaign and scale back his national infrastructure if he doesn’t have a strong performance Saturday.

"We may not have any choice, if it went that way," Pawlenty said at a breakfast in Iowa sponsored by Politico of the threat of a poor finish to his campaign.

While Bachmann has only officially been in the race for five weeks so far, she has attracted an ardent following in the Hawkeye State, where she grew up. The crowd that turned out for her speech at the Iowa State Fair on Friday was at least double the size of any other candidate’s. Although she was a half hour late, most of the crowd waited patiently in the sun and heat for her and gave her short speech a warm reception.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) may also have a strong showing. While Paul’s libertarian and idiosyncratic views don’t play well with much of the Republican base, his devotees have turned out at other straw polls en masse and pushed him to strong showings before. Paul’s field organization is much stronger than it was when he finished fifth in the 2007 straw poll, and Paul supporters were highly visible at both Thursday’s GOP debate and the Iowa State Fair on Friday.

For other contenders, there may be pressure to drop out of the contest after the results are in. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), businessman Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have struggled for attention and financial support. Depending on how they do Saturday, some observers could be writing their campaigns' obituaries.

The candidates will try to keep their participants entertained. Bachmann will have an air-conditioned tent, performances by country acts including Randy Travis and North Star, and free barbecue.

Pawlenty will treat supporters to musical acts, free Dairy Queen and barbecue. Santorum will have musical acts including Buddy Holly’s old band, The Crickets. Cain will have pizza from the company he used to run, Godfather’s Pizza.

One other big-name Republican will be lending a hand to a few of the candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus in 2008, will show off his bass-playing skills. He plans to perform with Cain and Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.), who is also running, and play with the bands at Santorum’s and Pawlenty’s tents. Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is a senior operative for Pawlenty’s campaign. 

Huckabee isn’t slotted to play with Bachmann’s campaign, even though her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, ran Huckabee’s 2008 campaign.

Mike O'Brien contributed to this story.