Six Republican presidential hopefuls compete Saturday in the Iowa straw poll, an unofficial test of campaign strength that will share the stage this year with the launch of Texas Governor Rick Perry's White House run.
The two events, coming less than six months before Iowa residents hold the first presidential nominating contest, promise to reshape the Republican race for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
Perry will announce his presidential bid in South Carolina, another state with an early nominating contest, and is expected to immediately vault into the top tier of contenders along with front-runner Mitt Romney. Perry visits Iowa Sunday.
The straw poll, a nonbinding mock election, traditionally winnows the field of poor performers and boosts those who do better than expected. This year, struggling Tim Pawlenty is fighting for survival as rival Michele Bachmann tries to keep her recent momentum alive.
Romney will be on the ballot but chose not to participate after winning the straw poll in 2007. He later lost the Iowa caucuses to Mike Huckabee, who rode the momentum he generated with a surprise second-place straw poll finish.
"It's an event that in-and-of-itself is meaningless, but can have a tremendous political impact," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "It has always had the role of eliminating the weak and thinning out the field."
The poll is a fund-raiser for the state party and creates a carnival atmosphere around Iowa State University's basketball arena, where candidates entice supporters with big-tent entertainment, free food and speeches.
Any Iowa resident over 18 can show up and participate, with many allowing a candidate to buy their $30 ticket. Candidates organize buses to haul in supporters from around the state in a warmup for the organizational effort needed in the caucuses.
PALIN NOT A FAN
Not all of the candidates are fans of the event. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who is still flirting with a White House run, questioned its validity during a visit to the Iowa state fair Friday.
"It's not always the tell-tale sign of what the electorate is feeling," Palin said of the poll. "It's who happens to show up and has the time and energy to spend that day for their particular candidate."
Pawlenty and Bachmann have the most at risk. They are both vying for the support of the social conservatives who dominate Iowa's kickoff contest, and both need a win in Iowa's caucuses in 2012 to have a viable path to the nomination.
Bachmann's appeal to both Tea Party fiscal conservatives and social conservatives has shot her to the top of opinion polls in Iowa, but a flat performance by the Minnesota congresswoman could puncture her early momentum.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, is mired in single digits in state and national polls and needs a strong showing to keep his campaign alive. He ripped Bachmann's record in Congress during a debate Thursday at the straw poll site.
"He's been trying to say Bachmann is all flash and he can go the distance, but he has had trouble convincing Republicans here of that," Goldford said.
Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant refused to discuss how strong a showing was needed to keep Pawlenty viable, but he said he was confident it would show him on the rise.
"We acknowledge that we have to show some movement from the back of the pack to the front," Conant said.
Four other Republicans -- Representatives Ron Paul and Thaddeus McCotter, businessman Herman Cain and former Senator Rick Santorum -- also paid the fees and bought tents and speaking time at the event.
Romney, along with former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, did not pay to participate in the straw poll but will be listed on the ballot.