Saturday is easily the most important day of the Republican primaries so far as the candidates face a major test in Iowa -- and a new challenger enters the arena.
The bulk of the field has been gathered in Iowa all week mingling with locals and noshing on corn dogs as crowds of national reporters follow their every move. The big show is Saturday afternoon as candidates make their final appeal for votes in the Ames Straw Poll, with the ballots closing at 4 PM.
Candidates are already planning all sorts of stunts to attract supporters. Rick Santorum is handing out free jelly. Tim Pawlenty invited Christian rockers Sonicflood. Herman Cain will sing gospel. All three will receive a visit from 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, who will play bass at their booths.
The poll is totally unscientific, but a strong showing can give candidates a nice shot of positive press. And every candidate besides the state-leading Michele Bachmann is in desperate need of some help in that category. The only other heavyweight in the national polls, Mitt Romney, is not participating (although he's spent the last few days in Iowa). Tim Pawlenty is staking big money on Ames to jolt his lackluster campaign back to life and said on Friday that a flop would require him to "reassess" his approach. For some of the less establishment candidates, like Ron Paul and Herman Cain, a straw poll win could vault them back into the national conversation, much like Huckabee's second place finish helped draw new attention to his campaign and built momentum for his eventual upset victory in the state.
For the middle of the pack candidates, that boost is especially important given who isn't at Ames. That would be Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is expected to announce his presidential campaign in Charleston, South Carolina at a convention organized by right-wing site RedState.com. Perry's perfectly timed entrance threatens to squash contenders' straw poll gains by dominating the news cycle. If they don't break out soon, they could become buried as the race turns into a top-heavy war between frontrunners Bachmann, Romney, and Perry.
As if Perry's announcement isn't enough of a news suck, candidates in Iowa will also have to share headlines with Sarah Palin, who's in Ames. Although there's little evidence Palin is still seriously preparing for a presidential bid at this late stage in the game, she's still doing her best to convince her supporters not to rule her out. "There is still plenty of room in that field for a common-sense conservative," Palin told state fair-goers on Friday. "Watching the debate, not just last night, but watching this whole process over the past year, it has certainly shown me there's plenty of room for more people."