Iowa Republicans and most of the party's presidential candidates will converge Saturday for the county-fair-like tradition known as the Ames Straw Poll. It started in 1979 as a state GOP fundraiser. Today, the party faithful still buy tickets — as do candidates, who give them to backers who show up to participate in the poll. Though the event, a festive "political schmoozefest" with no official significance, can offer a hint of the candidates' relative strength in the state's crucial caucuses, only two of the past five straw poll winners went on to become the party nominee. What will this year's straw poll tell us? Here, five key questions:
1. Will Michele Bachmann's momentum grow?
If Rep. Michele Bachmann wins — a strong possibility — "she's cemented a place in the top-tier for the next few months," says Andrew Malcolm in the Los Angeles Times. Bachmann is an Iowa native who represents neighboring Minnesota in Congress. Plus, her Tea Party credentials and Christian conservatism make her the odds-on favorite in Ames. A first place showing won't make her the race's true frontrunner, especially since powerhouses Mitt Romney and Rick Perry aren't even showing up to Ames. But a Saturday victory would keep her near the head of the pack.
2. Will Tim Pawlenty flame out?
The former Minnesota governor was considered the candidate to beat in Iowa — until Bachmann burst into the race. Now, Ames will be a crucial test for T-Paw, and he's putting his extensive Iowa network to work lining up supporters and renting buses to get them to the straw poll. There's good reason for the spending blitz — if Pawlenty finishes first or second, his campaign remains very much alive. "But if Pawlenty fails to deliver," say Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman at Politico, "it will be a grim — and possibly fatal — omen for his underfunded presidential bid."
3. Will Rand Paul save his dad's campaign?
Rep. Ron Paul needs a strong showing in Ames to keep his longshot candidacy alive, says Andrew Belonsky at Death + Taxes. "Anything less than third place would speak volumes about how far his campaign still has to come, and will raise eyebrows about whether or not he can run a competitive race from coast-to-coast." So the Texas libertarian is unveiling a secret weapon: His son. For the first time, the Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul will join the elder Paul on the stump. We'll find out Saturday if it's enough to push Paul into the top tier.
4. Will Rick Perry steal the show?
The Texas governor has "sucked much of the oxygen from the GOP primary race this week," says Danny Yadron at The Wall Street Journal. He won't be participating at Ames, but he'll still be a big factor. Perry reportedly plans to announce his candidacy in South Carolina on Saturday, just as the straw poll gets underway. If Perry manages to steal attention from Ames, he'll diminish both the winner and the straw poll itself. But that could backfire on Perry, warns Mike Huckabee. Iowans are gracious — but "they're not gonna take kindly to someone, in essence, dissing their big event."
5. And what about that other show-stealer, Sarah Palin?
The former vice presidential nominee is taking her One Nation bus tour on "a surprise trip to Iowa," says Peter Grier in The Christian Science Monitor. The point, supposedly, is to "meet folks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines," pay tribute to an all-American tradition — the state fair, not the straw poll — and taste delicacies like fried butter on a stick and fried cheesecake, "in honor of those who'd rather make us just 'eat our peas.'" Oh, and conveniently, because of Ames, "hundreds of political reporters are already in Iowa — pre-positioned for a Palin drive-by. Pure genius."