The next few days in Iowa could be critical to the future of Republican Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign.
Political analysts say if the former Minnesota governor fails to deliver in a nationally televised debate tonight and a straw poll this weekend, he may lose the confidence of supporters and find it difficult to finance a campaign.
The Ames Straw Poll is a pivotal milepost in the GOP nomination battle. In hopes of a good showing, Pawlenty has aggressively courted Iowa Republicans — in person and on television.
But despite frequent trips to Iowa and the roughly $1 million his campaign has spent there to boost his popularity, Pawlenty has struggled to generate political buzz and excitement. Even his ads seem to acknowledge that.
"Join me and prove the experts wrong," Pawlenty tells voters in one message.
The Ames Straw Poll is rarely a good indicator of who will win the GOP nomination, but it regularly reshuffles the field of candidates and marks the end of unsuccessful campaigns.
Officially a fundraiser for the state Republican Party, Saturday's event is a key early test of how well campaigns can organize their supporters. The campaigns provide free transportation, free tickets, free food and drinks, T-shirts and more in hopes of stacking the event with their supporters.
With Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann dominating coverage of the straw poll, some are referring to it as the "Minnesota Primary." Both candidates have a lot riding on the outcome, but most political insiders agree Pawlenty has the most at stake.
"If he doesn't do well in the debate, if he doesn't do well in the poll itself, then he's going to be in a very, very difficult position," Washington University political science professor Steven Smith said.
The straw poll is much more than a popularity contest. It also helps key decision makers begin to judge whose campaign to support.
"What will happen immediately following the straw poll is that Republican insiders — potential donors — will make a judgment about whether or not Pawlenty is recovering his position or whether he's continuing to slide," Smith said.
In recent weeks Pawlenty's presidential fortunes have faltered as Bachmann's have brightened. Bachmann has spent much less time and money in Iowa, but she has rocketed to the top of the polls of the state's likely GOP caucus-goers.
“If [Pawlenty] comes in a close second ... and everybody else following, he probably can live to fight another day.”Dennis Goldford, Drake University
A pivotal moment for both of Minnesota's candidates came in mid-June at the first GOP debate featuring all of the major candidates. On stage in Manchester, New Hampshire, Bachmann looked and sounded confident, and she guaranteed herself prominently placed news coverage by announcing her campaign for president.
In contrast, Pawlenty tripped up, botching a high-profile chance to confront former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in person over Romney's creation of a mandated statewide health insurance program. A day earlier on a Sunday talk show Pawlenty had tied President Obama's national heath care plan to Romney's statewide effort.
But debate moderator John King of CNN couldn't prompt Pawlenty to repeat that to Romney's face on the Hew Hampshire debate stage.
"Your rival is standing right there," King said. "If it was 'ObamneyCare' on Fox News Sunday why is it not 'ObamneyCare' standing here with the governor right there?"
In response, Pawlenty said that he was merely quoting the president.
Since that debate, Pawlenty reported disappointing second quarter fundraising numbers of $4.2 million. Some of his allies left his campaign, and national polls show him at or near the bottom of the pack of GOP presidential hopefuls.
Conservative Iowa talk radio host Steve Deace said Pawlenty's debate performance in New Hampshire is very much part of the problem he's having right now.
"When you got the one shot close-up look at Tim Pawlenty, gulping into the camera and punting on the chance to take Romney on, that reinforced the narrative that he's a wimp. And he's been struggling to live that down ever since," Deace said.
If Pawlenty doesn't win the straw poll, Deace said, there's little point for him to continue in the race.
Pawlenty does not see it that way. His campaign declined to make him available for an interview, but the governor has repeatedly told reporters that he simply needs to show progress in the Ames straw poll. For him, that means anything above his 6 percent standing in the last Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers taken in late June.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Steve Grubbs dismisses the notion that Pawlenty's debate fumble doomed his candidacy. Grubbs, who is the CEO of Victory Enterprises, one of the Midwest's largest political consulting firms, said Pawlenty doesn't need to win the straw poll, but he does need to be among the top four finishers.
"The problem he has is, because he does have a good team and he has invested in media, if he fails to do reasonably well, people will lose confidence in the campaign effort," said Grubbs, a former state legislator.
For Pawlenty, the big question is how well.
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said without a strong front-running straw poll showing, Pawlenty's quest for the GOP nomination will likely be over.
"If Pawlenty were to finish a close second to Bachmann — ideal for him would be to beat her and come in first — but if he comes in a close second to her with a pretty good distance between himself and second place and everybody else following, he probably can live to fight another day," Goldford said. "By that I mean demonstrate an ability to raise money, because money is the life blood of any political campaign."
As for Bachmann, her hefty national profile creates a potential downside for her, according to Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report.
"I think Bachmann has some really high expectations that's she's going to have to meet. And if she doesn't meet them, she going to have to explain why," Duffy said.
Goldford, the Drake University political scientist, said it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Bachmann's competitors do during tonight's debate to try to knock her off her rising trajectory.
"The question will be whether the bubble continues to inflate, or whether somebody like Pawlenty or someone else manages to deflate that bubble," he said.
Goldford also said Pawlenty has a chance to recover from the last debate, but the former governor has to be careful.
"Just like a good batter, you can't be so aggressive that you swing wildly at everything, because if you do that you'll look desperate and you'll strike out," Goldford said. "But at the same time, he's got to look for his pitch and he's got to hit it out of the park."
In an interview with CNN last month, Pawlenty said it was preposterous that he might end his campaign if he doesn't do well in Ames.
But if he doesn't deliver after all the time and money he's put into Iowa, that decision might not be up to him.