In case you thought, as some silly pundits did, that the Ames Straw Poll wouldn't matter this time around, at least two of the big network Sunday shows have announced that they will broadcast from Ames next weekend, and according to reports there have been a record number of press-credential requests for the event. If you hold it, they will come.
The straw poll takes place at the Iowa Republican Party convention; this year FOX News is hosting a debate as well. Yes, it's silly -- candidates buy up tickets and bus people in to vote for them -- but deservedly or not it will be a big deal. So, here's what to keep an eye out for.
--Pawlenty do or die. This may be overstating the case, but only slightly. Tim Pawlenty probably can't hope for a top-two finish, given the strength of Bachmann and the cult-like behavior of Ron Paul's supporters. If he finishes a solid third behind those two, and certainly if he manages second place somehow, he could get momentum from being the top electable choice, and for beating expectations. However, if he does worse than third -- and especially if he finishes behind Santorum, Cain, or another also-ran -- it will become very difficult for him to close the deal with the potential funders and endorsers who are waiting to see if he's got a chance to win. That problem is compounded by the very likely entry of Texas governor Rick Perry into the race later this month (see below), who gives those folks another option.
--Bachmann's moment. It certainly looks like Michele Bachmann is poised to win the straw poll. On top of her surge in the polls, she's got Randy Travis performing at her tent, which is a powerful incentive for Bachmann supporters to get on a bus to Ames. Anticipating her success, the national media is sizing her up -- Newsweek puts her on the cover this week, and Ryan Lizza has a big profile in the New Yorker, among the many entries. The big question: does she come out of this spotlight moment looking like a serious person who can be trusted to lead the party, or like a loony who must be stopped to save the party?
--Romney walks a tightrope. Mitt Romney won the Ames Straw Poll four years ago, finished a solid second in the state's caucuses, and is the clear frontrunner for the nomination. Yet, he will be given a pass for doing poorly this weekend, because he insists he is not really competing in Iowa. It's ridiculous, but that's how it works. If he's lucky, the other conservatives will train their fire on Bachmann at the debate, although I'd guess he'll take some hits for failing to lead on the debt-ceiling debate, among other things. I've argued that Romney's best path for the nomination lies in Bachmann winning Iowa (forcing establishment Republicans to rally to him), so my guess is he does nothing to derail her this weekend.
--Perry's ghost. Rick Perry is not on the ballot in Ames; there is reportedly a write-in campaign, but I doubt it will amount to anything. His plan seems to be to let Bachmann have the media cycle, and then use his entry to grab the next cycle. The worse Pawlenty does, the easier it will be for Perry to quickly establish the sense that the race is down to three options: the phony conservative (Romney), the unelectable conservative (Bachmann), and the true conservative (himself).
--The Paul frenzy. Ron Paul has been winning straw polls all over the place, and has put an effort into Iowa. I'd be a little surprised if he finishes lower than second. That will send a signal to all the Paul-ites that he's a major candidate and they should stick with him rather than choose among the other options -- which I think hurts Perry, who would be their most natural choice among the rest of the candidates.
--The field. Santorum, Cain, and the rest need a break-out moment at Ames, because it'll be almost impossible for them to get one after that. It's possible that one of them will. But more likely, Bachmann will solidify herself as the winner of the social-conservative pre-primary phase.