DES MOINES, Iowa — A nationally televised debate, a test vote in Iowa and a candidacy by Texas Gov. Rick Perry — should he decide to seek the GOP nomination as many insiders, activists and party leaders expect — could shake up the Republican presidential race in the coming days.
The entire field of Republican candidates planned to participate in Thursday's debate in Iowa — the first that will include former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — and most were staying in the leadoff caucus state for a straw poll two days later when GOP activists will indicate their presidential preferences for the first time. Perry planned to be elsewhere, but his likely candidacy was looming large in Iowa and across the nation.
With the first votes of 2012 less than six months away, the week promises to refocus the political world, to a certain extent at least, on the Republican nomination fight after months of debate in Washington over the nation's debt having largely eclipsed it. That issue, coupled with a sour jobs outlook, last week's Wall Street sell-off and the nation's downgraded credit rating, is framing the 2012 campaign, with Republicans using fears of a double-dip recession to criticize President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.
"He's hiding on these issues. He's ducking on these issues. He should be leading," Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" while campaigning in Iowa. "We can't find him. ... We shouldn't have to play 'come out, come out, wherever you are' with this president."
Obama, aware that he's been taking a beating for months in this important presidential battleground, planned to counter the criticism by holding a rural economic forum on Aug. 16, on the heels of the straw poll, as part of a Midwestern bus tour. It will mark a new chapter in his re-election efforts; until now, he's been focused on governing and has done little campaigning as Republicans compete for the chance to challenge him in November 2012.
For months, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has led the Republican field in polls and money while no less than a half-dozen — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty and Huntsman among them — have fought to emerge as his main challenger. All the while, the GOP electorate has made clear in polls that it wants more choices, perhaps a conservative who is strong on both economic and social issues, leading Perry to consider a White House bid. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also is keeping the door open and plans to headline a tea party rally in Iowa on Sept. 3, though many Republicans consider her far less likely than Perry to run.
"He has the potential to appeal to both the economic conservatives and social conservatives," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who is unaligned in the race, said of Perry. "The economic conservatives are somewhat up for grabs. I really think it comes down to what does Perry do. I think there is the potential for him to change the race."
Romney, who is focusing on Iowa far less than he did during his 2008 campaign but is ready to ramp up if he sees an opportunity, returns to the state on Wednesday for a backyard event in Des Moines. He's certain to be the target of criticism during the debate a day later at Iowa State University, as his challengers look to derail him while boosting their fortunes before a national audience.
Neither Romney nor Huntsman, a fellow Mormon who is bypassing Iowa altogether because of his moderate stances on some issues, will participate in Saturday's straw poll. But the poll has big implications for those who are, chief among them Bachmann and Pawlenty.
Bachmann has risen quickly in national polls and is near the top in Iowa, although it's unclear whether she has the organization in place there to deliver. The tea party favorite, who has worked in recent weeks to reach GOP voters beyond her base of strong social conservatives, hopes to prove she does have broader appeal and organization with the straw poll, a test of organizational strength as well as popularity.
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