Des Moines – A half-dozen Republican presidential hopefuls jockeyed Friday for attention on the eve of the Iowa straw poll, a ritual that has taken on outsize meaning as candidates brace for a summertime shake-up in the party’s nominating fight.
Michele Bachmann reminded voters of her tenacity, declaring: “If I’m not loved because of it, so be it, but I’m not going to Washington to be somebody. I think I’m somebody now.” Tim Pawlenty implored Republicans to look beyond her fiery words, saying, “That’s not going to be good enough for our nominee for president of the United States.”
The Republican candidates, who are already contending with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas entering the race on Saturday, suddenly found themselves competing for attention with another figure who swept into town: Sarah Palin. She dropped by the Iowa State Fair, where she spent hours talking to admirers and holding forth with reporters, but disclosing little about her own intentions.
“I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Ms. Palin said, adding that she would leave the state before the straw poll on Saturday. Asked if Republicans needed her as a candidate, she said, “You know, I think the more the merrier, the more the better in these debates and out there in the arena.”
The arrival of Ms. Palin put an exclamation point to the political spectacle overtaking Iowa this week. The straw poll carries no formal meaning, delivers no delegates and is technically nothing more than a mock election. But even as some candidates played down its importance, they worked feverishly behind the scenes to lure supporters to the balloting in Ames on Saturday.
The animosity that erupted at a two-hour debate on Thursday night did not abate on Friday, with Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Pawlenty, both of Minnesota, continuing their sharp exchanges as they urgently appealed to voters for support. The straw poll has emerged as an important test for both candidates, with Mrs. Bachmann looking for a strong showing to help assuage concerns about her experience and Mr. Pawlenty hoping to keep his campaign from being eclipsed.
Mr. Pawlenty, who invited his leading donors to Iowa to see his candidacy in action, struck a positive tone as he urged Republicans to look beyond the carnival aspect of the straw poll to the serious business of choosing a nominee who could beat President Obama. Yet he also found himself repeatedly addressing a series of hypothetical questions about a poor finish.
“If the thing went the other way hard,” Mr. Pawlenty said Friday, “we would have to retrench in some way, but I don’t think that is going to happen.”
The results of the straw poll are nonbinding and far from predictive of who will win the Iowa caucuses early next year that open the Republican nominating contest. But the outcome offers a look into a candidate’s organization, which is among the biggest questions facing Mrs. Bachmann, whose candidacy has rapidly accelerated since she entered the race two months ago.
Some curiosity seekers have been drawn to her campaign events in the past week, including an afternoon stop on Friday in Indianola, where people from Ohio, Wisconsin, Nebraska and California mixed with the Iowans in the audience, according to a random sampling of interviews with them after the event. The straw poll is open to Iowa residents only, who must show photo identification before casting their ballots.
A few hours later, a large crowd waited in the sun for nearly an hour at the state fair. When Mrs. Bachmann arrived, she spoke for 2 minutes, 22 seconds. “This is where Barack Obama got his start,” she said. “This is where he is going to come to his end, in Iowa!” As she moved along to the next stop on her itinerary, several members of the audience openly voiced their displeasure with her quick exit.
Other Republicans competing in the straw poll delivered full speeches.
Ron Paul, who has been drawing crowds that often rival or surpass many of his rivals, asked his supporters to send a message to the party establishment, which has paid little attention to his candidacy. He has logged more days in Iowa than almost anyone else, an investment that he hopes will lend a new sense of legitimacy to his campaign.
The rest of the field — including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain — urged Republicans to support their efforts and keep the race filled with a broad cross-section of candidates. They lingered at the state fair, shaking hands and making their way across the fairgrounds, which teemed with people on a temperate summer afternoon.
Ms. Palin, who did not appear to directly interact with the declared candidates, indicated that she had not yet ruled out joining the Republican presidential campaign. But her leisurely pace around the fair, including a conversation with reporters for about 45 minutes, did not seem to suggest the busy schedule of a candidate-in-waiting.
“I don’t know if within the next couple of weeks I will be ready for an announcement or not, to tell you the truth,” she said.
She was peppered with questions about the Republican field, and welcomed Mr. Perry’s decision to enter the race on Saturday in his weekend tour of early-voting states, concluding with a stop in Iowa on Sunday.
“It adds another choice for Americans to consider, heading into 2012,” she told reporters. “I appreciate that he’s willing to jump into this arena and to be a part of this.”
When asked whether Mr. Perry had a similar profile to her own and could take away her supporters, she said: “I don’t worry about any of the candidates. I would just run my own race, if I were to run.”