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."
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