WASHINGTON Republican presidential hopefuls will swarm Iowa this week for a debate and a straw poll that could be a make-or-break test of strength for struggling candidates like Tim Pawlenty.
The straw poll, a nonbinding mock election that often eliminates the poor performers and boosts those who do better than expected, will share the spotlight Saturday with a still unofficial contender -- Texas Governor Rick Perry.
While Republicans hold the daylong straw poll in Iowa, Perry is expected to make his plans to run for the White House clear during appearances in South Carolina and New Hampshire -- two other states with early nominating contests.
The dueling events inject life into the slow-starting Republican race for the 2012 nomination to challenge President Barack Obama, who looks increasingly vulnerable amid stock market plunges and economic worries.
"The preseason is ending, and the campaign is about to begin in earnest," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Pawlenty. "This will be an important benchmark in the race."
On tap in Iowa is the first debate in nearly two months on Thursday, and appearances for most contenders at the Iowa state fair Thursday and Friday before at least six candidates converge on Ames for the straw poll Saturday.
That popularity contest has grown from a modest start in 1979 to become the first big event on the Republican campaign calendar and an early test of organizational strength in Iowa.
Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, vying for the support of the social and religious conservatives who dominate Iowa's kickoff contest in February, have the most at risk in the poll.
While Bachmann's appeal to Tea Party fiscal conservatives and social conservatives has shot her to the top of opinion polls in Iowa, a flat performance could puncture the Minnesota congresswoman's early momentum.
Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, is mired in single digits in state and national polls and needs a strong showing to keep his campaign alive.
'FIGHT ANOTHER DAY'
"If he wins or comes in a strong second, he lives to fight another day," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "If he doesn't, it's hard to see how he can continue and keep raising money."
The straw poll, a fundraiser for the state party, creates a carnival atmosphere around Iowa State University's basketball arena as candidates entice supporters with free food, big-tent entertainment, and speeches.
Any Iowa resident over 18 can show up and participate, with many allowing a candidate to buy their $30 ticket. Candidates organize buses to haul in supporters from around the state and use the poll as an organizational tool.
"From a campaign perspective, it's incredibly important," Republican state party chairman Matt Strawn said. "If someone is committed to driving to Ames or getting on a bus, that's someone you can count on that cold February night."
But some candidates question its value. Senator John McCain won the nomination in 2008 after skipping both the straw poll and the Iowa caucuses. Front-runner Mitt Romney will skip the poll this year after winning it in 2007, saying he wants to save his money for actual nominating contests.
In 2007, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's struggling campaign got a big boost from his surprise second-place finish in the straw poll. He ultimately won the Iowa caucuses but lost the nomination to McCain.
George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, started his road to the White House in 1999 with a straw poll victory. Within weeks, losers Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole had all dropped out of the race.
This year, four lesser-known Republicans will be looking to spring a surprise. U.S. Representatives Ron Paul and Thaddeus McCotter, businessman Herman Cain and former Senator Rick Santorum will be on the ballot.
Romney, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman are not participating but are on the ballot as declared candidates.
They will all be competing for attention with Perry, who has been exploring getting in the presidential race for months. He was expected to go further Saturday, stealing some headlines from the straw poll.
"He knows that Sunday there are going to be a lot of stories about the presidential campaign and it's important for him to be in those stories," former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Steve Grubbs told Radio Iowa.
(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson in Iowa; editing by Mohammad Zargham)