Republicans jostle for position amid key week in Iowa

By Jeff Zeleny

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

The political merits of the straw poll are limited, particularly for predicting results of the caucuses next year. But the results — fair or not, considering only a few thousand people will take part in Ames — are likely to accelerate or extinguish the ambitions of some candidates.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has wide appeal among voters with a libertarian strain, is aggressively pursuing a strong finish at the straw poll. He has been working to expand on the deep support of his core followers and has encouraged them to send the party a message. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, his son, will arrive this week to help.

The urgency in the voices of the candidates made clear how high the stakes are.

As Pawlenty concluded question-and-answer sessions with voters on Friday, he asked for their support — not in the caucuses, but more immediately, at the straw poll. He urged Republicans to take seriously his admonition to elect someone who could go the distance, not a candidate with more limited appeal.

"Before you fuel this rocket and launch it out of here," Pawlenty said, "make sure it can get all the way to the destination."

Pawlenty has moved most of his campaign organization to Iowa from his national headquarters in Minneapolis. He has invested nearly all of his limited finances on television commercials and campaign material to identify supporters and persuade them to go to Ames, where a strong finish in the straw poll could move him beyond his summertime slump.

The debate on Thursday evening, being televised by Fox News, also offers an opportunity for Pawlenty to avoid the missteps that he acknowledged making at the last debate when he backed away from challenging Romney on health care. That debate hurt his fundraising, his aides said, even as Bachmann's steady performance helped propel her candidacy.

Bachmann is also aggressively working to win the straw poll, which will provide a key test on whether she is able to turn the enthusiasm surrounding her candidacy into actual support. Her crowds are routinely larger than those of her rivals, but her campaign stops are staged as events more often seen in the general election, where a high priority is placed on appearances

For two days in a row, she was late arriving at campaign events in the warm afternoon sun and humidity. Her blue campaign bus was idling nearby, but as the crowd waited for her to arrive, an aide was busy arranging the crowd, saying into a loudspeaker, "We need to fill in the crowd and make it look nice and tight for our national media guys."

She also sought to lower expectations, which have soared since she entered the race two months ago.

"We're at a distinct disadvantage from an organizational perspective, but the response that we've had from Iowans has been overwhelming," Bachmann said. She also told the crowd that the White House was carefully watching her campaign, declaring, "They fear my candidacy more than any other."

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