Debate tonight marks start of Iowa’s ‘Minnesota Primary’

Many political insiders are using phrases like "make or break," as they look at what's at stake for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty going into tonight's Iowa GOP debate and, more importantly, Saturday's straw poll in Ames.

Pawlenty has spent a lot of time and about $1 million trying to make himself the choice of Iowa Republicans. But his plan to become the alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hit a road block when fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann got into the 2012 GOP nomination battle in mid-June, quickly eclipsing the candidate who likes to call himself 'T-Paw.'

Tonight's debate will give Pawlenty and the other potential Romney alternatives a chance to knock down both Romney and Bachmann.

Pawlenty is hoping it will wipe the slate clean from the last debate in New Hampshire in June, when he whiffed at a chance to criticize Romney on health care in person, after doing it on Fox News Sunday the day before.

As Bachmann's standing in the field of GOP candidates has grown over the past several weeks, she's become a more careful candidate, avoiding impromptu reporter questions and carefully staging campaign events. Bachmann is likely to play it safe in Ames tonight in hopes of retaining her ground.

While there will be a lot of attention on the debate, barring some major misstep tonight, the big story out of Iowa this week will be the results of the Ames Straw Poll - or the 'Minnesota Primary,' as some are calling it.

Romney's name will be on the ballot, but he won't be in Ames this weekend, and he hasn't been actively campaigning for support in the poll. Pawlenty has, running TV ads and making lots of speeches.

Bachmann, who's been running well ahead of Pawlenty in polls of likely Iowa caucus goers, hasn't spent nearly as much time or money in Iowa as Pawlenty. The Bachmann campaign is hoping her populist, anti-establishment appeal will win her the most support in the straw poll. Both the Pawlenty and Bachmann campaigns have been arranging transportation to help supporters get to Ames, and both are providing live music along with free food and beverages at their hospitality tents.

For Pawlenty failing to come in first or a strong second in the straw poll could mark the end of his campaign. The poll is basically a beauty contest, but if he performs poorly many supporters would likely reconsider whether they think he could win the nomination and stop sending money. Pawlenty calls the idea that he might be forced to exit the race if he fails to deliver in Ames "preposterous."

The stakes are also high for Bachmann. Her strong start has created has high expectations, and if she fails to live up to them, her bubble could begin to deflate.

Soon after she entered the race Bachmann rocketed to second place in national polls of likely GOP primary voters. The latest national polls show Pawlenty at or near the bottom of the pack of GOP candidates. They also show Bachmann losing some of the support she was picking up following the June debate.

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