INDIANOLA, Iowa — Fresh from his adopted home at an Iowa farm, would-be president Rick Santorum wore cowboy boots and jeans when he walked into a worn-at-the edges corner store on the square of this small town looking for help.
"People in Iowa have a huge say in who's going to be president," the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania told a dozen Republicans sipping coffee. "Iowa doesn't pick the president, but it does pick the field."
Indeed. Starting with a debate Thursday in Iowa and a make-or-break straw poll in the state Saturday, the coming stretch will test candidates, messages and machinery, elevate some to the top tier of media attention and money, and drive the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination heading into the fall.
The straw poll — so named because its results are nonbinding and thus as sturdy as straw — is nonetheless one of the first major events of the campaign for the Republican nomination.
Winning it doesn't guarantee a victory in the precinct caucuses that will start picking the nominee next winter. But doing better than expected can boost a candidate — and doing poorly can kill a campaign.
A 1999 straw-poll win helped establish George W. Bush as the front-runner for the 2000 nomination and drove four rivals from the race.
The 2007 straw poll drove one candidate from the race. At the same time, a strong second-place finish by Mike Huckabee helped prove the mettle of his campaign in Iowa, and signaled the coming upset of straw poll winner Mitt Romney the following January
"It's incredibly important," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. "This is the opportunity to see what you've got."
Not everyone thinks it's worth spending tens of thousands of dollars to bus supporters to the event in Ames, entertain and feed them, and buy each a $30 ticket to hear the candidates and vote. The event raises money for the state Republican Party.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who won the straw poll four years ago only to lose the caucuses, is largely sitting it out, refusing to spend money on it. He's following the model of John McCain, who all but skipped Iowa that year and went on to win the nomination anyway.
Romney'll still be on the straw ballot set by the state party. It will comprise Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; businessman Herman Cain; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich.; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota; Romney and Santorum.
The two teases in the race — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — haven't declared their candidacies and aren't on the ballot. Perry, however, is expected to try to steal some of the headlines out of Iowa Saturday by using a speech in South Carolina to signal his intention to join the campaign.
Four candidates are campaigning aggressively for the straw poll: Bachmann, Paul, Pawlenty and Santorum.
Bachmann wants to cement her status as the front-runner in the state. Reaching for tea party conservatives, she's casting herself as a conservative maverick, airing TV ads boasting of her vote against the debt deal in Washington.
"Join me here in Ames and let's send a message to Washington," she says.
After surging to the lead in state polls and spending freely to win, Bachmann's risking a lot.
"She has to prove she is a front-runner. She has high expectations," Robinson said. "If she doesn't finish first, it's not a blow that knocks her out of the race. But it would be a mortal wound. In time, she'd bleed out."
Pawlenty, lagging far behind, may have the most to lose if he falls short of a top finish in the state next to his own. He has the largest staff in the state, and he's airing TV ads to drum up support.
"He's putting it all on the line. His campaign could be bigger than all the other campaigns combined," Robinson said. "He has to win or come in an extremely close second to save his campaign. A poor showing will dry up his fundraising."
"I think we're going to do very well. I'm confident of that," Pawlenty said on Fox News. "I think we'll get good momentum, and I think you'll see the first step of that next week."
Paul, a libertarian whose supporters are among the party's most passionate, is working the state to try to get them and others to the straw poll.
After finishing fifth in the straw poll four years ago, Paul said he'd be disappointed by a similar showing this year. "We're bound and determined to do better than that," he said on a visit to Iowa City last week. "So I would say fourth or fifth place or worse would be a real negative."
Robinson said Paul was in a great position: getting started earlier and working harder than he did four years ago, while enjoying such strong support from his base that he could survive a second-tier finish.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Ron Paul wins," Robinson said. "And if he's not in the top three ... fundraising and expectations don't matter. ... He's the Teflon don of the race. He is in the best position. He can be the spoiler, and there's no downside."
Santorum, languishing in the polls and lacking cash for advertising, is looking for a straw poll boost the old-fashioned way: moving his family to Iowa, making five or six stops a day around the state and talking to Republicans in groups of 10 or 12 or 15.
His pitch: He's a true conservative like many of his rivals, but with a track record of beating incumbent Democrats in tough races and of working to get legislation such as welfare restructuring through Congress.
The straw poll in Ames is "an opportunity to maybe elevate some folks and disappoint some others," Santorum said, standing at the lunch counter of the Corner Sundry Store, which opened circa 1949.
"People in Iowa have a huge say in who's going to be president. The first thing you can do is go to Ames," he added as an aide stood to the side waving a sign-up sheet. "Come up to Ames and shock the political establishment. I'm asking for one day. I'm asking for a half day."
Nursing a coffee in a heavy white mug, tea party Republican Susan Glick of Indianola liked what she saw. She's not sure about Bachmann — not sure she's electable — and doesn't like Romney's refusal to woo Iowa: "thumbing his nose at us."
She likes Cain and Santorum, but she's not sure they'll survive August in Iowa. "I'm afraid they're not going to make it to the end," she said.
Farther up the road in Perry, Santorum notched a sure win with one voter during a meeting with about 15 Republicans at the town library.
"I was not really sold on anybody until now," said Marti Nalean, a farm wife from nearby Ogden. Sold on Santorum — as she was four years ago on Huckabee — she said she'd try to get her entire family to Ames to vote for him in the straw poll.
"We are sparing no expense. We are looking for a huge upset," Santorum said. "My guess is after this event there will be fewer Republican candidates for president."
One of the trailing candidates, Gingrich, doesn't have the money to compete and said the straw poll's verdict would make no difference to him.
"I'm happy if anybody who shows up wants to vote for me. I'm honored and delighted and I hope we get whatever votes show up," he said during a yard party in Des Moines. "But we're not spending money trying to organize it."
Another candidate said his finish would factor into his decisions about how to campaign heading into the autumn.
"I do believe that I need to finish in the top three," Cain said during a stop in Des Moines.
"If we finish fourth or fifth, we're going to evaluate that to determine what the implications are. So it's not the end of the road; it's just going to be a harder analysis that we would do to decide if we go forward."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington