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Republicans jostle for position amid key week in Iowa

By Jeff Zeleny

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6 2011 10:35 p.m. MDT

TIFFIN, Iowa — At the outset of a crucial week in the presidential campaign, the Republican candidates are increasingly turning on one another as they try to overcome their own weaknesses and capitalize on the vulnerabilities of President Barack Obama.

A sense of urgency is rising for contenders to make favorable impressions at a debate Thursday, the first time Jon M. Huntsman Jr. will join his rivals on stage. That will be followed by the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday, a ritual that provides an early test of organizational strength that could accelerate or dampen the aspirations of some candidates.

The full Republican field will descend upon Iowa this week to court voters and present their arguments to party activists, some of whom say they are eager to build the drumbeat of criticism about Obama into a candid discussion of which candidates could best defeat him.

"The opportunity is right there for us," Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, told a Republicans here on Friday. "The main way we're going to goof this up, as Republicans, is to nominate the wrong candidate."

As Pawlenty made his way across Iowa this weekend, he warned Republicans against supporting someone without executive experience. His audiences nodded in agreement. Yet the target of his criticism, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, drew booming applause from far larger audiences when she pledged to confront the establishment, declaring, "Behind this dress is a titanium spine!"

And looming over the race is the question of whether Gov. Rick Perry of Texas will join the field this month, as he has signaled to donors, activists and party officials. His entry could deliver a jolt to the race, but it remains an open question how long he could maintain the same level of curiosity and intrigue he now holds.

"Everybody's waiting for some ideal candidate to get in," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who fielded a call from Perry last month. He added, "I told him to come to Iowa now and start campaigning like you campaign for sheriff."

As the candidates scramble to test their messages and gain attention, a majority of their arrows have been aimed at Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, assailed Romney's leadership on the debt ceiling debate. Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, questioned his convictions on conservative social issues. Even the former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who has yet to rule out a run, suggested that he placed his finger to the wind instead of leading by example.

Romney, who has maintained a disciplined silence, is preparing for rougher treatment in the debate Thursday than he received in his first one in June. His advisers say he is opening a new campaign phase by making more public appearances after several months of lying low. He is not overtly campaigning for the straw poll, but is waging a stealth campaign in Iowa to keep his options open until the field clarifies.

Republicans sense a fresh opening surrounding Obama, after painful budget talks, sustained high unemployment and lowering the nation's credit rating. ("It happened on your watch, Mr. President," Bachmann said Saturday.) But that is offset for some by a lack of consensus over who would be the strongest — or least flawed — Republican nominee.

Here in Tiffin, a handful of Republican candidates delivered speeches and mingled with 300 party activists at a picnic supper Friday. As Pawlenty, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, worked the room, several people stood out in the crowd. They wore burnt orange shirts printed with white lettering: "Americans for Rick Perry."

It was yet another sign that Perry was inching closer toward entering the race and would not be starting a campaign from scratch. The group, formed by friends who say they are operating independently, is urging people to attend the straw poll and support Perry as a write-in candidate, since his name will not be printed on the ballot.

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