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.
Pawlenty has spent at least 18 months building a campaign, but he has struggled to gain traction both nationally and in Iowa. He's focused most of his resources on the state over the past few weeks and has essentially camped out in it in hopes that a strong straw poll finish will give him a much-needed boost. He has said he must show traction after poor poll showings despite a heavy organizational footprint in the state.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul is certain to be a factor. The libertarian-leaning Republican is hoping to convert his devout national following into support that suggests he is more than a protest candidate.
Also participating in the poll are Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose campaign imploded earlier this summer; Herman Cain, the former pizza company executive; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a hero among social conservatives. Poor showings could force some of those candidates from the race.
Perry, meanwhile, plans to deliver speeches to the Alabama GOP on Friday and to a convention of conservative bloggers in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday — the same day as the straw poll.
His decision could come at any point now that a national prayer rally he hosted Saturday is behind him; roughly 30,000 evangelicals spent part of the weekend with him in Houston praying, singing and testifying about their faith.
It was an event that sent a strong message to social conservatives that Perry is credible on their issues, and Republicans say that could allow him to pivot to a jobs message and establish himself as a credible alternative to Romney, given Texas' recent job growth.
Romney has emphasized his background as a CEO more than he has his record as governor and is trying to be seen as the candidate most focused on jobs. And although he's focusing less on Iowa, he's watching closely what happens in the state and is ready to compete aggressively if he sees a chance to assert himself early as the preferred pro-jobs candidate.
The Texas governor could interfere with those plans if he runs.
"Perry can come here and legitimately go after the economic message and, if he does, Romney's in trouble," said Iowa Republican Doug Gross, who was a top Romney supporter in 2008 but is unaligned this year. "Perry can build a sense of momentum, starting in Iowa, that he's the jobs candidate. He's got a perfect opportunity."
Many expect him to do just that. Perry has said in private conversations with Iowa GOP leaders that he would likely mount a caucus campaign. His senior political consultant, David Carney, has begun scouting for potential staff in Iowa. And Perry's advisers are busy honing a strategy.
"If he does run, his message will be about the economy, jobs and how messed up Washington is," Carney told The Associated Press. "And he will talk specifically about his philosophy of governance and how to allow the private sector to create jobs and what Texas has done."