AMES, Iowa — After darkness descended on the Iowa State University campus Friday evening, Rep. Michele Bachmann tossed out popcorn ball treats to thank the crowd of volunteers gathered in the parking lot.
"We started at 4:30 this morning campaigning, and we've been going all day, and you are a sight for sore eyes," Bachmann, her voice hoarse, told the evening tailgate crowd. "We couldn't wait to make the trip to get up to Ames, because tomorrow we are going to begin the process of making Barack Obama a one-term president."
The Minnesota Republican didn't say so, but Saturday will be the most important day of her presidential campaign so far. After a strong performance in the GOP debate Thursday evening, the consensus among Iowa political veterans is that either she or Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) will place first in the quadrennial Ames straw poll.
Republicans predict that 15,000 Iowa activists will descend on the Hilton Coliseum Saturday to vote for Bachmann or one of the eight other candidates on the ballot. The results — expected late afternoon — could either boost a contender or purge a candidate from the field. Conventional wisdom about the poll dictates that candidates win by exceeding expectations, which means Bachmann has a high bar to clear.
On the eve of the poll, dozens of large, empty white tents filled the parking lot around the athletic arena under the full moon. Campaigns had already posted signs detailing their free food offerings for straw poll voters, such as a Famous Dave's BBQ banner.
Thirty minutes before Bachmann took the stage Friday, her straw poll director offered the crowd specific instructions for the next day: Come to the poll, get registered, obtain a purple wristband and a ticket, then vote for the Congresswoman. Elvis Presley, Bachmann's campaign soundtrack, played in the background as he spoke.
"We're going to need 200 volunteers tomorrow," he told the crowd. "Can I count on you? At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning, you bring yourself. I'll bring the coffee and donuts."
Earlier in the day, presidential candidates paraded through the Iowa State Fair like a true cattle call — except the real livestock was housed in the expansive barn nearby. One by one, the Republican contenders addressed the crowds at the Des Moines Register soapbox over the course of Thursday and Friday: Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took the stage under the hot Friday mid-day sun. Dressed in blue jeans, black cowboy boots and a collared shirt, Pawlenty put one leg up on a bale of hay while taking questions from the crowd.