Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty fired first, questioning whether Rep. Michele Bachmann's migraines disqualified her from becoming president, and ripping into her congressional record as "nonexistent." She then fired back, blasting him for selling out the conservative brand while in office and leaving their home state in financial tatters.
The war of words comes as GOP presidential candidates jockey for position before the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll — the circuslike event in Iowa that some have billed the "Minnesota Primary" because of the presidential street cred Mr. Pawlenty and Mrs. Bachmann have riding on the results.
"Pawlenty's camp is kind of looking for a boost of momentum and a really strong showing in the straw poll could give them that," said Story County, Iowa, GOP Chairman Cory Adams. "Bachmann, as the front-runner in some polls, definitely needs to do well in the straw poll to retain that momentum and not lose ground."
The straw poll features nine candidates this year. It is seen as the first prize in the nomination race and a crucial test of each candidate's overall organizational strength — making it a potential make-or-break event for the field six months out from the state's caucuses, which kick off the nomination process.
"This is a completely meaningless event with massive political implications," said Dennis J. Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took the top two spots in 2007, while former Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson saw their candidacies go down the tube shortly after their poor showings.
Mr. Huckabee received the biggest bounce from the results. Mr. Romney's triumph, though, was shrugged off as expected after he shelled out more than $1 million on the event, only to lose the caucuses the following year.
Since then, Mr. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have decided to focus their attention on New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, a strategy that involves skipping this year's straw poll, though both will be on the official ballot.
As a result, the Aug. 13 poll could provide a better picture of which Republican might emerge as a legitimate alternative to Mr. Romney, the front-runner in national polls. "The question is, Who emerges as the un-Romney?" Mr. Goldford said.
The latest RealClearPolitics.com average of Iowa polls shows Mrs. Bachmann in the lead, with Mr. Romney trailing her in a close second and Mr. Pawlenty further back in third place. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is running fifth, sandwiched between Herman Cain, the Atlanta businessman, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Mr. Huntsman are bringing up the rear.
With the clock counting down to the Iowa event, Mr. Paul, Mr. Pawlenty and Mrs. Bachmann are running television advertisements, while most of the field is fanning out across the state, hitting scores of town hall gatherings and meet-and-greets in search of supporters.
"I think I have a lot riding on it," Mr. Paul said. "If I get fifth or sixth, it won't be very good. So, I think we will have to work very hard to prevent that from happening."
Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said his boss has logged more than 1,500 miles and visited more than 35 cities in the past two weeks, and he plans to be back in Iowa the week before the straw poll. Meanwhile, his team has been working phone banks, sending out direct mail and signing up supporters.
They've also tried to manage expectations by playing up Mrs. Bachmann's front-runner status in Iowa, while casting Mr. Pawlenty as an underdog, highlighting a June poll that had him running sixth.
"We think its important that we show some progress," Mr. Conant said. "Our goal is to move from the back of the pack to more toward the front, and that our ultimate goal is to win the Iowa caucuses next year."
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