Ahead of a pivotal week in Iowa, a sleepy 2012 GOP primary finally comes to life

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

Compared to four years ago, the 2012 GOP presidential race has been a fairly sleepy affair, overshadowed by the debt fight in Washington and largely ignored by a public more concerned about the nation's struggling economy than the upcoming election.

But the next week could change that, as Republicans descend on Iowa for what will be the true kickoff to the 2012 nomination fight and Texas Gov. Rick Perry prepares to enter the race.

On Thursday, the leading Republican contenders will gather for the first televised debate in Iowa—an event that will mark Jon Huntsman's first face-off with his GOP rivals since joining the race in June.

Two days later, all eyes will be on Ames, where the Iowa straw poll will be the candidates' first real test of organizational strength and grassroots support. It's a gathering that could offer clues to the political prowess of Michele Bachmann and the staying power of Tim Pawlenty--two candidates who are vying to be the alternative to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

In between, the GOP hopefuls will be knee deep in retail politicking. Like dozens of White House wannabes before them, they'll feign interest in butter sculptures, marvel at giant pigs and schmooze with voters at the Iowa State Fair—a lighthearted but serious event that has frequently shaped how the public views a candidate. Just ask Fred Thompson, whose 2008 candidacy was tainted after he was spotted wearing Gucci loafers on his inaugural visit to the Des Moines fairgrounds four years ago.

But it's not just Iowa that will be the focus of attention in coming days. On Saturday, Perry will reportedly "make clear" he's jumping into the GOP nomination fight during an appearance at a conservative convention in South Carolina--the same day as the Ames straw poll.

A week from now, we will likely know more about the make-up of the so-far volatile GOP field. Can Rommey hold on to his position as frontrunner?  Is Perry the savior many GOP voters are looking for? Can Pawlenty gain enough momentum to save his lackluster campaign? Will Ron Paul be taken seriously? And can Huntsman and Newt Gingrich—two candidates whose campaigns have fallen short of expectations—survive?

Here's a quick look at what's at stake for some of the leading GOP contenders:

Mitt Romney: Sitting comfortably atop most early 2012 polls, the former Massachusetts governor has spent most of the summer ignoring his GOP rivals in favor of attacking President Obama. But while he's already running a general election campaign, the ex-governor is more at risk in the GOP primary than polls might suggest. The lack of enthusiasm for Romney as the GOP nominee is much of the driving force behind Perry's likely candidacy--and a sign that Romney's popularity with big GOP donors isn't translating into support among the Republican base. And not unlike 2008, he faces a test: Can he woo the base enough to win the GOP primary without alienating moderates and independents he'll need to beat President Obama in the general election?

Michele Bachmann: With Romney signaling he won't compete in Iowa as intensely as he did in 2008, Bachmann is the frontrunner in the state. But a larger question is whether her candidacy can play well outside the early primary states. Citing her sparse congressional record and less than mainstream views, many Republicans still don't consider her candidacy to be the real deal. Given Bachmann's momentum in Iowa, anything less than a first place finish at the straw poll is likely to be viewed as a major loss--especially as Perry's potential candidacy threatens to steal some of her tea party support.

Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor arguably has the most at risk in coming days. Struggling in the polls for months, Pawlenty desperately needs a good showing at Ames to keep him in the game--which is why he's wagered most of his campaign cash on TV ads and grassroots outreach in the state in recent weeks. He might not beat Bachmann, but if he trails candidates like Ron Paul, Herman Cain or even Newt Gingrich, it's hard to see how his campaign survives.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor's potential candidacy has dominated headlines in recent weeks and stirred up excitement among conservative activists and GOP donors who aren't thrilled with Romney. But that doesn't mean his candidacy is a sure thing. Plenty of candidates have gotten into the race at the last minute--including Thompson in '08--only to see their buzz fade and their presidential dreams collapse. Most voters still don't know very much about Perry, as his GOP rivals have pointed out. The test for Perry is to prove he's worth the buzz.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor isn't competing in Iowa--and unlike most of his rivals, he won't even make a speaking appearance at the state fair. But he will be on stage for Thursday night's debate, an appearance that is crucial to his campaign. In spite of early buzz, Huntsman's candidacy has failed to catch fire, and in recent weeks, most of the headlines about his campaign has focused on internal strife among his staff rather than his 2012 bid. This is his chance to turn it around—and to make a good first impression with GOP voters, as many still have no idea who he is.

Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker's campaign has been on the downward trajectory most of the summer, dating back to his formal kickoff week when he alienated Republicans by trashing a Medicare proposal put forward by the House GOP. His campaign subsequently imploded, with most of his senior staff resigning en masse, and Gingrich has struggled to regain momentum ever since. He didn't have enough cash to reserve space at the straw poll, but he'll still be there, hoping to breathe some life into his struggling campaign. But it may be too late.

Ron Paul: The Texas congressman is one of the most prolific fundraisers in the 2012 field--a position that helped him reserve the largest space available at the straw poll. But the libertarian has struggled to be taken seriously. He's suggested that anything less than a top three finish at Ames would be a major blow to his campaign.

Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Thaddeus McCotter: As the race gets more serious heading into the fall, the pressure is on for these three candidates to do something, anything, to boost them out of single digits in the polls. Santorum has spent more time than any GOP contender in the early primary states, but last week, his campaign signaled that he would be happy with a fourth place finish in Ames, a position that doesn't exactly electrify his nomination bid.