imageThe Fox News/Iowa GOP debate tonight up in Ames will serve as the kick-off for the Ames Straw Poll festivities.  That is unless you count the Pints and Politics event hosted by WashPo’s Chris Cillizza last night at Quinton’s in Des Moines as the kickoff.  I’m sticking to my top three prediction (Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul), but I’m not confident of the order.

Bachmann’s organization in Iowa looks much better to me than it did a month ago.  She’s been hitting the airwaves as well.  I would not be surprised by a first place finish.  Pawlenty has been in the state the longest, has the largest campaign staff in Iowa, and seems to have the best organization, but just doesn’t seem to have the excitement surrounding his campaign.  Yet he has put in the hard work in the state in order to bring out people to the Straw Poll so I believe he’ll be in the top three.  I’m just confident he’ll win at this point.

Ron Paul is the wildcard… how many people will the “liberty bus” be able to bring.  I also wonder how many non-Iowa residents who attend Iowa Colleges will come and vote.  It’s legit in the voting rules the Iowa GOP laid out provided those students can show a photo ID from an Iowa college or university.

Another wildcard could be Rick Santorum.  He’s been campaigning hard and has crisscrossed the state visiting many rural location.  That is something that a candidate needs to do in order to succeed in Iowa, Santorum has done this, other candidates not to the level he has in the past few weeks.  He has also moved his family out here for the past few weeks and that demonstrates a commitment to woo Iowa voters.  I think that could be rewarded and he could end up surprising a number of people.  Just a week someone close to the Bachmann campaign said to me that Santorum worries him.  He’s putting in the effort necessary to do well.

The other factor which could impact the straw poll is the debate tonight.  A good performance tonight could make an impact.  People may decide to come out and vote if they had planned to skip.  There could be some minds changed… this early out a lot of support is still pretty soft.

We also have Sarah Palin coming out to the Iowa State Fair for her One Nation Tour.  Becky Beach (who met the Palins for lunch last month when they were in Iowa) said that it’ll be tomorrow, but there is no official word if that is the case.  Since she’s not on the straw poll ballot she can visit the state without the pressure of people having the expectation that it will impact her performance during the straw poll.

Rick Perry is coming out on Sunday for a fundraiser in Waterloo, and will be joined by Bachmann.  I have also heard that he may sticking around for a couple of days and come down to Central Iowa.  If so that will work to alleviate concerns that he is slighting Iowa.  It’ll be interesting to see what kind of write-in turn out he’ll have.  Americans for Perry have been working hard.

Thaddeus McCotter won’t be in the debate tonight so instead of whining about like Fred Karger likes to do he’s livestreaming his answers to the questions tonight from the Crystal Studio at the Iowa State Fair.  So if you get tired of Bret Bair’s moderating ability you can check that out.

Oh I’ll be at the debate tonight… so I will be providing my caffeinated coverage.

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