Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor and ambassador to China has not campaigned at all in Iowa and is expected to poll accordingly. But Thursday’s debate will be his first. A dramatic moment on national television would be an opportunity for Hunstman to convince GOP activists and donors that he deserves to be in the top tier of candidates.
Ron Paul: The lawmaker and tea party hero from Texas has passionate followers who frequently give him an edge in straw polls. Yet even a top spot is unlikely to endear him to enough mainstream Republicans to pave a path to the nomination. “From everything I'm seeing, Ron Paul has a better than average shot to win this thing. Then, where will the field be?’’ asked Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad. Good question.
Tim Pawlenty: The former governor of Minnesota has the most chips riding on this weekend. He’s been campaigning hard in the state for months, built one of the most respected organizations, and invested in television advertising. But he has shown little traction in the polls and has been seeking to lower expectations. “This is make-or-break for him,’’ said longtime GOP activist Loras Schulte. “I think he has to finish a strong third, at least, or he will have an awfully hard time making the case that he is truly a viable candidate.’’ A low turnout would suggest that Pawlenty’s grassroots machine has hit its targets but that Bachmann isn’t the big draw. He faltered in the last debate, and a strong performance on Thursday could help energize supporters.
Mitt Romney: After his $10 million gamble on Iowa earned him only second place in the 2008 caucus, the nominal 2012 front-runner declared months ago that he would not compete in the straw poll. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is trying to spend as little time and money in the state as he can without signaling disrespect to the proud host of the nation’s first caucus. Reflecting that balance, he hosted a roundtable discussion about the economy and attended a county fundraiser on Wednesday, and he will make an appearance at the Iowa State Fair and participate in the debate on Thursday.
Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator is trying to make the most of the fact that he has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. His new campaign video intones: “2,500 Miles … in 19 days … with seven kids … in two minivans … and 1,362 ‘Are we there yets?’ It’s the Santorum Iowa family tour.’’ Unlike Pawlenty, who has amassed a large staff in Iowa, Santorum has operated on a shoestring budget. It’s unclear if he would be able to sustain his bare-bones campaign if he doesn’t poll well on Saturday.