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Iowa GOP Presidential Power Rankings: The field narrows dramatically

As predicted, the Ames Straw Poll was a 2012 game changer, prompting former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to end his campaign and elevating U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann into the spotlight as a national contender.

While our panel of state political reporters, academics, grassroots activists and party leaders see no reason why Bachmann wouldn’t have a repeat victory performance if the caucuses were held tonight, they also view Texas Gov. Rick Perry as right on her heels — even if he officially announced on Saturday.

For the first time since we began our Power Rankings predictions this spring, the panelists gravitated toward a much reduced field. There were no spare nods to many of the so-called “fringe” candidates and all but one member of the panel gave first and second place nods to either Bachmann or Perry. That’s a long way from the baker’s dozen of candidates that were being openly discussed in June and July.

It appears that what the panelists see at mid-August are frontrunners and second choices and, more importantly, most contributors used a phrase like “barring a major mis-step” or “absent any significant gaffes” when describing their top three. There is a general feeling not only that these are the candidates to watch, but that the candidates below have now become creators of their own caucus destiny.

So, if the caucuses were held tonight, here’s how our panel believes they would end:

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/bachmann_125.jpg**Michele Bachmann** — The Minnesota Congresswoman met the high expectations in Ames on Saturday. Because of that, there is little doubt that she would provide a repeat performance if the caucuses were held tonight.

“She has an edge right now in Iowa, and will keep it as long as she continues to visit the state,” said one panelist.

Another added that Bachmann “has to be very pleased she finished first.”

“She had the buzz going into the straw poll, but the question was whether she could quickly put together an organization to capitalize on that buzz. The answer was yes and she retains the momentum for the next phase of the campaign.”

While the spotlight is trained on Bachmann — and, at least in Iowa, it is and has been for the past few weeks — it is also important for her to walk the walk associated with her talk. Some of our panelists are convinced that the only way she could lose the caucuses would be if her rather “abrupt campaign” gets in the way.

“You don’t come to Iowa, like she did last night [in Waterloo], first trying to make certain demands of county parties, then showing up late, then not taking time to meet one-on-one with the Iowans that came to see you,” a panelist said. “That’s not how you play in Iowa — even Barack Obama figured that out in 2007. So she can’t get up on stage talking about how she is one of us, an Iowan, or that she is a ‘real person,’ but then refuse to do retail politics.”

The road to the caucuses is going to get more difficult, not easier, in the coming months, added another panelist who is not convinced that Bachmann, despite her current rock star status, can actually go the distance.

“For her supporters, the media is a bunch of liars. So, we aren’t going to have a situation where something is unearthed in the media that will hurt her campaign. But there is talk already among activists about how difficult her campaign can be to work with, and about her former career as a tax attorney. Neither of those are sitting too well, and since they both are coming from the grassroots and not from the media, it could be that those types of things have legs.”

Rick Perry — As much as our panelists are impressed with how Bachmann has been able to organize in the few short weeks that she’s been an official candidate, they are equally impressed with the potential they see within the Texan.

“It’s not just as simple as he’ll swoop in and blow everybody away, nor is it as simple as he’s another Fred Thompson who will disappoint on first contact or a George W. Bush clone. The truth is somewhere in the middle,” a panelists noted. “He’s more impressive than Thompson, and more conservative than Dubya. But he’s also not the instant alpha dog that causes others to roll over for him, either. He probably can’t get to the right of Bachmann on the issues given his record, so he’s going to have to make the case that he’s the one that can win — which means you can expect this to get personal.”

Those Iowans that see Perry’s potential, also question his timing.

“Perry’s announcement of his entry into the race on the same day as the straw poll upset some Republicans as it was seen as bad timing. The timing doesn’t really bother me, in part because Perry came to Iowa the very next day, perhaps as a way to smooth over any hurt feelings.”

Another panelist, however, saw the South Carolina announcement as a “slap in the face” to the Iowa GOP. “I do think it was a horrible thing to do. He should have hinted in south and made the announcement in Iowa on Sunday night, but he wants South Carolina. Actually, it seems that this time, more than any other time, the candidates are determined to not only fight among themselves, but to set the early states in the nomination calendar at odds. Romney has his eyes set on New Hampshire, Bachmann thinks Iowa is hers and Perry wants South Carolina. If it breaks down that way, it could be a very long and bitter battle, which will not serve Republicans well.”

What none of our panelists can deny is the energy Perry has added to the presidential contest, they now are interested in knowing if such energy can be translated into a grassroots campaign of substance.

“Perry’s strong showing as a write-in candidate without any official campaign presence in the state suggests that he could gather a lot of support very quickly. Pawlenty’s supporters aren’t likely to go to either Bachmann or Romney, so there’s a good chance they would move en masse to another governor with results. Perry will need to put in the work to prove himself and put together a strong organization, but he should be in a good position to challenge Bachmann.”

Ron Paul — The Texas Congressman also had the glow of victory when leaving Ames, but our panelists don’t see his straw poll success translating to a caucus night victory.

“Ron Paul has always had strong supporters, and this year he and they seem to be going all in. That’s evidenced by his strong showing Saturday, which I think makes him a more formidable candidate than the last time.”

Another put it more bluntly, saying “the straw poll may be the high point in Paul’s campaign.”

“His supporters are loyal and intense. They turn out for events like straw polls [and online polls], but Paul’s message is unlikely to resonate with a broader Republican audience. His isolationism and sanguine attitude toward Iran obtaining nuclear weapons will not go over well with Republicans. He seems a more viable candidate this cycle because of the economic issues, and he can do well when he focuses on them, but he has to drift into other issues to keep his libertarian base happy and that won’t play well with the broader Republican base.”

County activists find the Paul campaign easy to work with, and are pleased with the response he receives when he appears in Iowa. But without a good message on items outside of economic policy, where Paul is gaining traction, they don’t see him as having what it takes to exit caucus night with a victory.

Mitt Romney — A few weeks ago our panelists were convinced that the former Massachusetts governor had a core group of supporters in Iowa that would not waiver. Following the debate and the straw poll, uncertainty has taken hold.

“It could be that there are is still core support here, but I didn’t see it among average Iowans at the state fair. It could also be that some of Romney’s supporters chose a different candidate at the non-binding straw poll — perhaps in a bid to knock off Governor Pawlenty, which seems to have worked. But the bottom line is that there is too little energy surrounding his campaign here. He doesn’t call. He doesn’t write. He’s not doing retail politics, and is really giving very few caucus-goers a reason to be excited about him and is candidacy.”

Another writes, “Some say his finish at the straw poll was good given that he wasn’t actually competing. I’m not so sure. Polls suggest that he still has supporters in Iowa, which is certainly true, but his total this year was about an eighth of what he received in the 2007 Straw Poll. Even though he plans to compete in the caucuses, he will need to do a lot of work to even convince his former supporters to still support him. Even so, there is a base there to support him and he could tap into it if he puts in the effort.”

While common belief might be that Romney is at least a partial benefactor of Pawlenty’s decision, our panelists believe that Pawlenty supporters will not find a home with Romney.

“The entrance of Perry into the race essentially eliminates any hope Romney has of winning Iowa, and likely the nomination (which is one of the major reasons Perry is running). That’s because Perry can now become a chameleon. He’s been both a conservative warrior and a more moderate type during his career. Therefore, if trying to best Bachmann on the right doesn’t work, Perry can simply move to the center and literally suck all of the oxygen out of Romney’s air space. Unless Perry suffers a personal scandal/meltdown, the clock is ticking on Romney’s presidential aspirations.”

“I think Mitt Romney remains a strong candidate in general, but unless he dedicates more time to Iowa, he’s not going to have much of a showing here.”

Rick Santorum — Prior to the straw poll the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania was little more than a blip in our power rankings, and while the panelists aren’t ready to elevate him into the top three, his strong finish in Ames and his smack down of Paul’s views on Iran during the debate have certainly helped him stand out.

“Santorum finished strong in the lead up to the Straw Poll. A fourth place finish for him is good. That gives him some momentum to carry on. He’s still running his campaign on a shoestring, but with Pawlenty out Iowa Republicans may give him another look, possibly as an alternative to Bachmann and Romney. Perry’s entry into the race complicates things, but some Iowans may feel they don’t know enough about Perry given his late entry and they may turn to Santorum who has put in the effort here.”

“You know, we hear an awful lot about family in this campaign, but it’s really only been Santorum who has involved his family in his Iowa experience. Whether knowingly or not, people are digesting that fact and it has helped him in our state.”

Iowans speak a lot about expectations — how they expect candidates to perform in debates, on the stump and in non-binding polls of voters. When looking at the expectations game specifically, our panelist see only one big winner: Santorum.

“He was the only one who really went in and did more than what we’d thought he’d do. No doubt he still has challenges — and those are big challenges — but he’s on the right track and I think he can still do better now that Pawlenty has dropped and his supporters don’t find homes with Romney and Bachmann. Those more socially minded are going to be giving Santorum a second look.”

“Santorum is the most unassuming candidate on the trail. Of course he wants to be president, but it isn’t like this is all about him and what his campaign needs. He’s been very respectful of the county party structure and wants to work with third party groups as well.”

In the future our panelists foresee an “emboldened” Santorum due his straw poll success, and they believe his continued campaign presence will help to keep social issues in the headlines.

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