DES MOINES, Iowa — Thursday night’s GOP debate in Ames, featuring eight presidential candidates, may be the oddest in memory.
What’s pragmatically useful and cruelly necessary is that the nationally televised encounter will almost certainly thin the field — poor performance and stubbornly low poll numbers likely will make it difficult for at least three candidates to attract enough money to campaign through the end of the year.
And what’s odd is the politician whose name is on the lips of Republican officials across the state — Texas Gov. Rick Perry — is not even on Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll ballot and won’t be participating in Thursday’s debate.
Mr. Perry has been hanging back, measuring the field, lining up major donors and is ready to say it’s a go for him during a speech on Saturday in South Carolina.
“Perry will change the game immediately,” said Gary Kirke, an Iowa businessman described by former Iowa GOP Chairman Stephen W. Roberts as “very, very influential … and a significant contributor.”
Also odd: In the midst of a down economy that has strained the budgets of news organizations of almost every stripe — and despite what Republicans generally regard as a pizzazz-free field of hopefuls — the Ames events are drawing a record number of journalists. More than 800 sought credentials from Chairman Matt Strawn’s state GOP organization.
Another headscratcher: GOP contender Tim Pawlenty once had the backing of powerful representatives of the George W. Bush wing of the GOP — including former Bush White House chief strategist Karl Rove and former Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman. Despite that support, the former Minnesota governor is trailing well behind Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney in Iowa polls.
Still, in the latest Rasmussen poll of likely Iowa GOP voters, no one, including those front-runners, can lay claim to even a fourth of the vote.
Mrs. Bachmann, late to enter the race as a down-the-line economic, social and national defense conservative, leads the pack at 22 percent, just a point ahead of Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose health-care bill in his state put him in bad odor with conservatives but has not been quite the albatross many expected.
Next, with 16 percent, is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose views are more reminiscent of conservative hero Barry Goldwater than of most of his nomination competitors and who rubs Iowa’s social and national-defense conservatives the wrong way.
Mr. Perry, though undeclared and rarely seen in person here, is nonetheless at 12 percent.
Mr. Pawlenty, always in Iowa but not often seen by its indifferent GOP voters, is at 11 percent, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also a down-the-line conservative with neo-conservatives hues, at 5 percent and former Godfather’s Pizza corporate chairman Herman Cain at 4 percent. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Rick Santorum, who hoped to kick-start his campaign with a good Iowa showing, has less than 1 percent.
Benton County GOP Chairman Loras Schulte said there’s “much more indecision about who Iowans are supporting at the debate Thursday and the straw poll Saturday than in the past,” — despite the unifying effect that President Obama has on Republicans.
“That’s why I think the debate on Thursday night will play an important role in what comes down on Saturday,” he said.
Republicans in Iowa agree that candidates toward the end of the train who want to avoid falling off altogether will need to hit hard at Mr. Romney’s vulnerabilities, particularly his defense of “Romney-care,” and Mrs. Bachmann’s perceived weaknesses — her tendency to make factual errors and to talk more in sound bites than in policy details.
“The debate is the last chance for Pawlenty, Santorum and Cain to distinguish themselves,” said Dubuque County GOP Chairman Matt Giese. “If they don’t have a good showing at the debate — and then the straw poll — their chances of winning the nomination would be slim.”
Mr. Perry is the only one with virtually nothing to lose Thursday — or Saturday. He is not scheduled to make the Iowa scene until a Waterloo Lincoln Day dinner on Sunday.
“If Perry announces Saturday he will likely steal most of the thunder from whoever wins the straw poll,” said Mr. Giese. “The media are itching for him to announce, and he would likely be the key story Saturday if he does.”
Mr. Gingrich showed up in Des Moines Wednesday and told The Washington Times he is loaded for bear on two issues for Thursday. “Repealing Dodd-Frank Act is the easiest step Congress could take to help with job creation,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It would have an immediate impact. Community banks, Realtors, home buyers, small businesses would all have more money the minute Dodd-Frank was repealed.”
He also said that the United States “has time now to stop the U.N. General Assembly from recognizing the Palestinian Authority as a state. Only a firm, clear, decisive American position to cut off all payments will have any impact.”
“The Obama appeasement policy will lead to a decisive defeat for the United States and Israel in September,” Mr. Gingrich said. “The time to act is now. I hope these two issues come up in Ames Thursday night.”