Debate kicks off pivotal days in 2012 GOP primary

The next 72 hours could be the most important days of the 2012 GOP presidential race so far.

Tonight in Ames, the leading Republican contenders will gather for the first televised Iowa debate--an event that will mark Jon Huntsman's first face-off with his GOP rivals since joining the race in June.

Two days from now, the focus will shift to the Ames straw poll, which will be the candidates' first real test of organizational strength and grassroots support. While the straw poll is not binding, and is at most an informal measure of enthusiasm for a given candidate among party activists, the event could still offer important clues to the political prowess of Michele Bachmann and the staying power of Tim Pawlenty--two candidates who are vying to be the alternative to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But the spotlight could potentially be stolen by two other high-profile Republicans who have the White House in their sights--and both of them would not have much difficulty proving themselves as alternatives to Romney.

Tomorrow, Sarah Palin, who is flirting with her own White House bid, will revive her bus tour in Iowa, visiting the state fair in Des Moines, and threatening to upstage other GOP hopefuls in the state. On Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will officially declare his intentions to run for president in South Carolina--a speech that happens to be scheduled on the same day as the Ames straw poll.

A week from now, we will likely know more about the make-up of the so-far volatile GOP field. Can Rommey hold on to his position as frontrunner? Is Perry the savior many GOP voters are looking for? Can Pawlenty gain enough momentum to save his lackluster campaign? Will Ron Paul be taken seriously? And can Huntsman and Newt Gingrich—two candidates whose campaigns have fallen short of expectations—survive? Is Palin even running?

Here's a quick look at what's at stake for some of the leading GOP contenders:

Mitt Romney: Sitting comfortably atop most early 2012 polls, the former Massachusetts governor has spent most of the summer ignoring his GOP rivals in favor of attacking President Obama. But while he's already running a general election campaign, the ex-governor is more at risk in the GOP primary than polls might suggest. The lack of enthusiasm for Romney as the GOP nominee is much of the driving force behind Perry's last minute candidacy--and a sign that Romney's popularity with big GOP donors isn't translating into support among the Republican base. And not unlike 2008, he faces a test: Can he woo the base enough to win the GOP primary without alienating moderates and independents he'll need to beat President Obama in the general election?

Michele Bachmann: With Romney signaling he won't compete in Iowa as intensely as he did in 2008, Bachmann is the frontrunner in the state. But a larger question is whether her candidacy can play well outside the early primary states. Citing her sparse congressional record and less than mainstream views, many Republicans still don't consider her candidacy to be the real deal. Given Bachmann's momentum in Iowa, anything less than a first place finish at the straw poll is likely to be viewed as a major loss--especially as Perry's candidacy threatens to steal some of her tea party support.

Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor arguably has the most at risk in coming days. Struggling in the polls for months, Pawlenty desperately needs a good showing at Ames to keep him in the game--which is why he's wagered most of his campaign cash on TV ads and grassroots outreach in the state in recent weeks. He might not beat Bachmann, but if he trails candidates like Ron Paul, Herman Cain or even Newt Gingrich, it's hard to see how his campaign survives.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor's possible candidacy has dominated headlines in recent weeks and stirred up excitement among conservative activists and GOP donors who aren't thrilled with Romney. But that doesn't mean his 2012 campaign is a sure thing. Plenty of candidates have gotten into the race at the last minute--including Fred Thompson in '08--only to see their buzz fade and their presidential dreams collapse. Most voters still don't know very much about Perry, as his GOP rivals have pointed out. The test for Perry is to prove he's worth the buzz.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor isn't competing in Iowa--and unlike most of his rivals, he won't even make a speaking appearance at the state fair. (He will apparently observe some livestock though.) But he will be on stage for Thursday night's debate, an appearance that is crucial to his campaign. In spite of early buzz, Huntsman's candidacy has failed to catch fire, and in recent weeks, most of the headlines about his campaign has focused on internal strife among his staff rather than his 2012 bid. This is his chance to turn it around--and to make a good first impression with GOP voters, as many still have no idea who he is.

Sarah Palin: She's still the wild card in the 2012 race. After a high profile bus tour up the East Coast over Memorial Day weekend, the former Alaska governor has been laying low in recent weeks, even as other campaigns ramped up. That prompted some to suggest she was out of the running for 2012. But her surprise decision to visit Iowa during what is the true kickoff to the 2012 campaign is a hint she is still interested a presidential bid--or at least wants to keep that option open. Polls show GOP voters still consider her a major player in the race, and her potential Republican rivals have openly fretted about her ability to raise lots of cash. But it's unclear how Perry's candidacy and Bachmann's momentum in Iowa would affect Palin--or how she would affect them. Either way, she has to decide sooner rather than later on a 2012 run, if only to stay in Iowa's good graces. Voters there don't like to be toyed with for too long.

Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker's campaign has been on the downward trajectory most of the summer, dating back to his formal kickoff week when he alienated Republicans by trashing a Medicare proposal put forward by the House GOP. His campaign subsequently imploded, with most of his senior staff resigning en masse, and Gingrich has struggled to regain momentum ever since. He didn't have enough cash to reserve space at the straw poll, but he'll still be there, hoping to breathe some life into his struggling campaign. But it may be too late.

Ron Paul: The Texas congressman is one of the most prolific fundraisers in the 2012 field--a position that helped him reserve the largest space available at the straw poll. But the libertarian has struggled to be taken seriously. He's suggested that anything less than a top three finish at Ames would be a major blow to his campaign.

Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Thaddeus McCotter: As the race gets more serious heading into the fall, the pressure is on for these three candidates to do something, anything, to boost them out of single digits in the polls. Santorum has spent more time than any GOP contender in the early primary states, but last week, his campaign signaled that he would be happy with a fourth place finish in Ames, a position that doesn't exactly electrify his nomination bid.