The Iowa Republican Party's quadrennial straw poll in Ames, just a week and a half away, is all about setting expectations. Outperforming those expectations, as Mike Huckabee did in 2007 when he finished a surprising second, can vault a second-tier campaign into serious contention. Underperform, like Tommy Thompson or now Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback that year, and it can end presidential dreams.
But the expectations tell us something about where each candidate sees him or herself, and their place in the larger race.
Take Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. When he ran in 2008, Paul's campaign was little more than a sideshow, attracting a passionate base that gave money and then entirely failed to show up to vote. Today, Paul's team is more professional, more strategic and more focused on actually winning votes rather than just making a point. So he's acting relatively confident about the straw poll.
Finishing in fourth or fifth at the straw poll "wouldn't be anything to brag about," Paul told supporters yesterday at an Iowa campaign stop. "It would be a real negative, so we're bound and determined to do better than that."
Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty had been optimistic about his chances in Ames. In June, he wanted to be one of the "top few finishers" at the straw poll. A week later, he said he didn't have to win to keep his campaign going. Finally, a Pawlenty spokesman said the governor only needed to finish "better than sixth or seventh."
It's one thing to set low expectations when you're not really competing in the straw poll. In 2007, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., finished with just 101 votes out of 14,302, behind every candidate who had previously won elected office. But it's another when you've made the straw poll such a centerpiece of your campaign, running advertisements in Iowa before the vote and promising supporters bus rides to the event.
So let's just be clear: With a week to go before the straw poll, Paul is setting his bar higher than Pawlenty.
I'd wager that says a lot more about Pawlenty than it does about Paul.