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Two Republicans bank their all on Iowa poll

IOWA FALLS, Iowa ó Iowa is crawling with presidential candidates pitching themselves before Saturday’s Ames straw poll, an early test of a campaign’s organizational strength. But two Republicans have essentially moved to the Hawkeye State, slogging thousands of miles to woo voters in the small-town coffee shops, house parties and libraries that define retail politics here.|By Seema Mehta and Paul West, Tribune Washington Bureau

IOWA FALLS, Iowa ó Iowa is crawling with presidential candidates pitching themselves before Saturday’s Ames straw poll, an early test of a campaign’s organizational strength. But two Republicans have essentially moved to the Hawkeye State, slogging thousands of miles to woo voters in the small-town coffee shops, house parties and libraries that define retail politics here.

Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum face a critical test on Saturday, though for different reasons. Both men are floundering in the polls, and a poor performance could signal the end of their presidential ambitions.

Everything is riding on the straw vote for Pawlenty. The former Minnesota governor is considered one of the favorites, along with Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, to receive the most votes Saturday because of his intense effort to do well here.

Pawlenty has spent $1 million on TV ads and supporter turnout to stave off a campaign-ending setback. But the rise of Bachmann, whose high-octane rhetoric is striking a chord with an angry GOP base, has complicated matters for the low-key Pawlenty.

The other evening, at a house party in Clive, Pawlenty launched a veiled attack on the Minnesota congresswoman when he portrayed President Barack Obama as a gifted orator without the experience to be president.

“Before we put somebody in the Oval Office … they better be ready for the job,” said Pawlenty, who has made his experience as governor a main selling point. “We also don’t want to be duped twice by rhetoric and words.”

Straw-vote competition isn’t Pawlenty’s only challenge. At Thursday’s debate, he must try to recover from a blunder at the last face-off, when he ducked an opportunity to deliver, in person, the sharp criticism of Mitt Romney’s health care plan that he’d made on television a day earlier.

Another threat: Rick Perry is poised to jump in the race imminently. The Texas governor is being promoted as an establishment alternative to front-running Romney, a niche Pawlenty hoped to fill.

Unlike the late-starting Perry, who is expected to signal his intention to run in a South Carolina speech on the same day as the straw vote, Pawlenty and Santorum have chosen the traditional underdog path to the White House. By this weekend, they will have logged more than 100 combined days campaigning in Iowa and held almost as many events as all the other candidates together.

It’s a formula Jimmy Carter created by spending months quietly crisscrossing Iowa, coming out of nowhere to win the caucuses and, ultimately, the presidential election.

Santorum has been urging supporters to prove those who have written off his campaign wrong.

“I know we are not at the top of the polls; you don’t see me on the national news and everybody talking about how I’m going to win or I’m going to do well,” he told a few dozen people in the deli of a grocery store in Iowa Falls. “Send a message to Washington, send a message to New York and the mainstream media that you pick the field.”

The former Pennsylvania senator says he is best suited to take on Obama because he is the sole member of the GOP field who has defeated Democratic incumbents. He points with pride to his track record, including writing legislation that overhauled welfare.

Santorum castigates Obama as not believing in the values upon which the nation was founded and says the president’s health care law is solely aimed at giving government ultimate control over citizens’ lives.

“After 235 years of giving up people’s lives, fortunes and sacred honor to defend and fight for that heart of America, if you want to be the generation that will go down in history that gave it away, you just go right ahead and live your lives the way you are and don’t show up at the Ames straw poll,” he said.

Recognizing his straits, Santorum told reporters that he hoped to finish in the top five in Ames. Six candidates, including Pawlenty and Santorum, are officially taking part in the straw poll, and three others will appear on the ballot.

“You’ve got campaigns spending millions of dollars here, and have huge staffs. As you can see, we don’t have a big staff and aren’t spending millions,” Santorum said. “So we don’t have any real beliefs that we can crack that top tier, but if we can be right underneath there and show that we’re building.”

In recent days, as he hopscotched the state in a rented Winnebago, Pawlenty constantly tried to lower expectations and keep a weak finish at Ames from effectively ending his campaign.

He and Santorum are pinning their hopes on painstakingly building support, one voter at a time.

For a candidate who lacks celebrity, name recognition and personal wealth, “the opportunity of retail politicking in Iowa is well-suited for somebody who can’t just go in and buy a state,” Pawlenty said.

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(c) 2011, Tribune Co. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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