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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.
There was no limit on flattery for the Iowa fair crowd. A couple of hours later, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) declared the exposition the "best state fair in the country."
Bachmann capped off the soapbox program by giving brief remarks to one of the largest standing crowds. The Waterloo, Iowa, native moved to the podium with a large entourage before reminding the crowd her remarks were, "From one Iowan to another!"
Immediately after her speech, a gay rights activist from Minnesota confronted Bachmann on her stance against same-sex marriage. She didn't engage the activist, but her supporters did. Eventually the crowd dissipated into quarrels between gay rights activists, Bachmann and Paul supporters. Someone screamed at the activist, "You belong in New York."
But the fair's biggest political attraction was far from the Des Moines Register's stage in between fried Oreo and pork-on-a-stick vendors.
Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her husband were crashing the party. Palin popped up mid-day Friday near the cattle barn.
It wasn't long before throngs of supporters and reporters descended on the Alaskan couple. Palin answered questions for more than an hour as she worked her way through lines of livestock, telling reporters that when it comes to a potential presidential campaign, "We'll try to figure it out as we go a couple of different places."
Thousands of miles away from Iowa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was preparing to tell a conservative confab in South Carolina that he would run for president.
The 2012 contest is starting to sizzle just like the pork steaks Pawlenty flipped for supporters at the fair, no matter Saturday's results.