Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
AMES, Iowa — Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, their presidential hopes on the line, made last-minute appeals Friday along with a slew of other Republican contenders ahead of a big weekend test in Iowa that could winnow the large field of GOP candidates. But the pack was expanding, too.
Saturday's Iowa Straw Poll results will be the first important measure of the GOP pack — just as Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially makes it a bit larger and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin works energetically to keep her door open.
"I don't want to step on anybody's feet," she said Friday — even as she did just that with a visit to the Iowa State Fair that was timed to keep her in the conversation as she weighs whether to enter the race.
Elsewhere, Perry was putting the final preparations on his announcement set for the weekend. He was giving a preview Friday night with a speech in Alabama.
In Iowa, it was a frenetic day of campaigning in the hours before the straw poll. Thursday night's debate, though pointed at times, didn't fundamentally change the dynamics of the race.
Four months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney leads national polls and many states' surveys for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama next fall. But there is no shortage of rivals looking to emerge the top alternative to the former Massachusetts governor who lost the GOP nomination in 2008.
Among them are Pawlenty and Bachmann, Minnesota rivals who have the most at stake in Saturday's straw poll.
They went after each other during Thursday's debate, and the tit-for-tat continued on Friday.
"We're not going to have a nominee or we're not going to put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn't achieved results during their service in Congress," Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, said of Bachmann as the day began. "Nobody's questioning her spine, we're questioning her lack of results."
The Minnesota congresswoman, in turn, defended her record in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, casting herself as a top opponent in the debate over Obama's health care plan and "the leading voice, almost the lone voice in the wilderness of Washington, fighting against raising the debt ceiling."
Pawlenty, who has been languishing in early Iowa polls, is out to prove he's a strong player in the GOP race with a victory Saturday, while Bachmann hopes to build on momentum she's enjoyed since entering the race earlier this summer.
"For some people this is make or break," tea party activist Ryan Rhodes said.
Seven other candidates are on the ballot in voting that runs for six hours during the daylong political festival that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. They include Romney, who won the straw poll four years ago but isn't actively competing this time in the nonbinding contest, and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who has been bypassing Iowa almost entirely in his hunt for the nomination. Perry and Palin aren't on the ballot, but their supporters are waging write-in campaigns.
Others on the list, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, hope for surprise showings at the event on the campus of Iowa State University.
"It's fairly wide open," said Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway.
A day before the vote, a circus-like atmosphere already was emerging as campaigns erected giant tents where they will bring in live music and serve up tangy barbecue to court activists. Republicans wouldn't speculate how many people will spend $30 each to attend the event, but turnout in past cycles has ranged from 14,000 to 23,000.
The straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the outcome of the precinct caucuses.
In the past election cycle, Romney won the straw poll but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses but dropped from the race soon after. John McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn't compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.
Poor showings usually force some candidates — mostly those who are not well-known and are struggling to raise money — to abandon their bids, and that could happen this year, too.
"Some of them may have to face the cold, hard facts of campaign life," said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Des Moines contributed to this report.
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