All eyes in the 2012 presidential race will be on the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday, and the candidates are leaving no tea cup unturned.
Amid a blitz of television ads and barnstorming trips across Iowa, Geraldine Trier's phone in suburban Ankeny has been ringing off the hook for weeks. Most days, it's somebody calling for Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, who has strong Tea Party ties.
But Trier, 80, a retired school teacher and registered Democrat, is no Tea Partier. Rather, she's a member of a group called the Tea Cups. "We're just a small group of church women," she says.
All the same, the calls underlie the urgency of an Iowa-or-bust race that pits U.S. Rep. Bachmann against former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a GOP field likely to be winnowed once the ballots are counted in Ames.
In the final three-week push before this time-honored test of campaign strength, Pawlenty has traveled 1,480 miles across Iowa, meeting 1,600 Iowans at more than 30 town halls.
Bachmann has also been in Iowa nearly full time, with an added emphasis on Sunday church services, where her born-again faith helps her connect directly with the Christian conservatives expected to dominate the state's Republican caucuses.
Politics "is not my first love or my first priority," said the Rev. Marcus Moffitt of Calvary Baptist Church in Sheldon, Iowa. But when Bachmann's campaign asked to add his name to a list of supporters, he was willing. Moffitt and his wife are among 100 Christian faith leaders endorsing Bachmann.
In a game of expectations, both Minnesotans are casting themselves as underdogs, though some Iowa insiders believe the straw poll and the immediate bounce that comes with it is Bachmann's to lose.
Distantly trailing Bachmann and national front-runner Mitt Romney, Pawlenty is counting on a dogged organizational effort to trump his rivals or at least avoid a humiliating finish in the bottom half of the nine-candidate ballot. Even some of Pawlenty's backers privately concede the two-term governor is in trouble if he fails to finish close to the top.
"Pawlenty is very well organized ... he could almost call himself an Iowan now," said Cory Adams, Republican Party chair in Story County, where the Ames Straw Poll will be held. A supporter of Ron Paul, Adams said Pawlenty's organization is so meticulous that he has a county-level campaign chair taking names. "I don't know if he's gotten down to the precinct level yet, but it is at least down to the county level," he said.
A Late Start
Iowa state Sen. Jack Whitver, an early Bachmann supporter, said the three-term congresswoman is just now trying to catch up organizationally.
"She definitely got a late start. ... Governor Pawlenty was here probably a full year and a half before she got started organizing," Whitver said. "If the campaign isn't as well organized and hasn't had the time to build that, can just the pure passion of the grass roots and activists that go every year, can that translate into enough votes to win?"
Hovering in the background is Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is skipping the straw poll, though he will appear in a debate on Thursday with the others and his name will be on the ballot. There's also Texas Gov. Rick Perry, expected to announce his candidacy on Saturday. Both have been running shadow organizations in Iowa. Perry could be a factor as a write-in candidate, something allowed this year for the first time.
In his final 72-hour push, Pawlenty is pulling his radio and television ads to focus on the grueling work of turning out supporters at the event on the campus of Iowa State University, where participating candidates wine and dine supporters, renting tents, hiring bands and serving food.
What Price Support?
Pawlenty will try to entice voters with Christian bands, Dairy Queen Blizzards and Famous Dave's barbecue. Bachmann boasts a petting zoo, service dogs, funnel cakes and country singer Randy Travis.
Pawlenty told reporters in Urbandale Monday that "you can't buy Iowa." But he, as well as Bachmann and all the others, will bus supporters in, feed them, entertain them and pay their $30 tickets to participate in the most closely watched GOP fundraiser of the presidential election season.
Iowa's Plymouth County Republican Party Co-Chairman Don Kass said free bus rides and event tickets are standard but insists the straw poll still offers some measure by which to judge presidential hopefuls.
"I don't know anybody who has accepted a bus ticket from anyone that they are not going to vote for," Kass said. "Basically, it's a snapshot in time of the organizations that the various campaigns have right now."
Despite all the enticements, Iowa Republicans can't say for sure who has the most support among the expected 10,000 or more straw poll voters.
"Typically, they (voters) go on somebody's ticket," said GOP operative Tim Albrecht, who helped Romney win the straw poll in 2007. "They'll go on the bus, eat their barbecue, get their shirt. But this year we will have the highest amount of undecided voters that have ever gone to the Ames Straw Poll. It's that wide open, because the field's not set."
Among the uncommitted is Marshall County farmer Linda Harrington, a Republican activist who's still hoping for a fresh face to emerge before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in February. "After a few more candidates fall off," Harrington said, "another wave will get in."
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