The Ames Straw Poll served its dual purpose, once again, on Saturday: it winnowed the Republican field and raised significant money for the Republican Party of Iowa.
With the first electoral test of the Republican presidential primary now in the rearview mirror, we can look forward with new clarity.
Based on what is known today, the Republican nominee for President is almost certainly one of the following, in alphabetical order: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) or former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.). These three individuals solely constitute the first tier.
After investing over $1 million in the Ames Straw Poll, former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) chose to end his struggling campaign rather than incur debt in a very uphill battle.
Longshot conservatives former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) and businessman Herman Cain finished fourth and fifth respectively, and can only hope that candidates in the first tier falter and their attention-starved and financially-strapped candidacies catch fire.
But what to say about Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who narrowly finished second to Bachmann in Ames? With his enigmatic libertarian views and advanced age (for a presidential candidate), he will not be the Republican nominee, but he is better funded and better organized this time around. It’s not clear who his candidacy hurts most or when it is likely to end, though it doesn't look like he'll drop out before the Iowa Caucuses.
So where do we go from here?
Perry completed a whirlwind 36 hours where he visited all three of the early states for the first time as an announced candidate. Before September 1 he will hold at least 12 fundraisers in The South and Mountain West to bring in the seed money he needs to run a national campaign.
From a strategic standpoint, each of the top tier candidates has different goals:
• Bachmann: Her campaign must win the Iowa Caucuses, plain and simple. Going forward she needs to expand her fundraising base to include more large donors and bundlers, continue to effectively fight mainstream media attacks, remain disciplined in her message (as she did on all five Sunday shows over the weekend) and expand her support in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
To win the Republican Party's nomination, she must become the anti-Romney candidate, but to do so she must prevent Perry from that slot. Meanwhile, she will remain a sitting member of Congress and be forced to cast important votes on Capitol Hill on expiring tax breaks and a likely debt deal from the Congressional “super-committee.”
• Perry: His campaign faces a critical week on the campaign trail, when first impressions will be made among voters and the national media glare will be white hot.
Perry’s team is attempting to do what has never been successfully done in Republican politics: enter the presidential campaign 150 days before the first delegates are elected. The campaign’s, equally important strategic imperatives, are to raising a significant amount of money (likely $20-$25 million by the end of 2011) and investing enough candidate time to build support in the early states. To do this, Perry cannot personally attend most fundraising events; instead, large donors and bundlers must sign on and produce – quickly.
While reserving the right to defend himself, Perry will likely ignore Bachmann, focusing initially on President Obama and eventually on Romney.
One successful scenario is a strong second place finish in Iowa against Bachmann. Then on to New Hampshire where he would need to finish second or third to Romney, and then on to a win in South Carolina and Florida – which means he and Romney advance to the finals.
• Romney: Romney has been walking a tightrope so far. He has raised more money than any other candidate, but he has tried to float under the radar to minimize press access, mistakes, scrutiny and attacks from opponents. The next phase of the campaign won’t allow this level of detachment.
Romney's campaign has promised major policy rollouts and more retail campaigning in September.
He will need to retain a laser-like focus on the economy. He'll also need to make the case against Obama’s failed leadership, and hope that electability arguments deliver the nomination for him, as it did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
There's no question that the next phase of the GOP 2012 campaign will be intense. September's calendar alone includes three televised debates, a presidential forum hosted by conservative kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), as well as the end of the third quarter’s fundraising period on September 30.
Meanwhile, we await a decision from former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska), who seems unlikely to run, especially with Perry in the race, but remains as unpredictable and dynamic as ever.
After many months of uncertainty, August has provided clarity to the 2012 Republican primary battle. September promises to be exciting to watch as the first tier candidates go forward.
Matt Mackowiak is a Washington and Austin-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He is not a paid adviser to any presidential campaign and has been an adviser to two U.S. senators and one governor, and has worked on two winning campaigns.