Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) – From the first Republican presidential debate in two months, to the state fair, which is a must stop for any White House contender, to a crucial GOP straw poll, the campaign spotlight is firmly shining on Iowa the next three days. And after the three days are over, the race for the White House may not be the same.
Thursday night the eight major GOP candidates face off in the first presidential debate since a CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader showdown nearly two months ago. There will be a lot on the line at the debate for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota as it's the first head to head clash for the candidates in Iowa, the state that votes first in the primary and caucus calendar.
Just about all the White House hopefuls are also making stops at the state fair, which is a picture perfect example of retail politics. From taking questions directly from Iowa voters at the famous Soap Box, to walking the fair grounds and shaking hands, to eating fried Twinkies and any kind of meat on a stick, the Iowa State Fair has become a top item on the to-do list for presidential candidates. Romney and former Utah Gov. and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman made stops at the fair Thursday, with Romney getting a taste what can be a lively give and take with Iowans.
"You asked your question and now I am going to give my answer. If you don't like my answer then you can vote for someone else. But now it is my turn to give my answer," Romney said to cheers, as he answered a contentious question from a member of the crowd.
Most of the other White House hopefuls, as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's closer and closer to formally entering the race, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who's flirting with a run for the nomination, are also showing up at the state fair over the next few days.
And then there's the Ames Straw Poll, which traditionally alters the battle for the Republican nomination. The event, on Saturday on the Iowa State campus in nearby Ames, is part straw poll, part party, and part fundraiser. And for the campaigns, "it's truly an organizational test on all fronts," says Mary Cownie, former communications director for the Iowa GOP. "It's unique because it's an all day event, where all the candidates can come, where all Iowans can go and speak to each of the candidates, and then vote in the straw poll."
The straw poll, which takes place the August before the start of the caucus and primary season, in election cycles without a sitting Republican president running for re-election, was first held in 1979. While there are numerous straw polls in the Hawkeye state, the one in Ames is the main attraction, because it draws voters from across Iowa, and because it attracts the national political press corps.
Here's how the event, which is also known as the Iowa Straw Poll, works: In advance campaigns bid for tent spaces surrounding the Hilton Coliseum, where they set up camp, providing food and entertainment for their supporters. This year Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who's making his third run for the presidency, shelled out $31,000 for the best piece of real estate, closest to the coliseum. It's the same spot that Romney, who's not taking part in the straw poll this time around, secured four years ago for his first bid for the White House.
The arena is where the candidates speak and where those participating vote. Campaigns are allowed to bus in supporters and pay their $35 entrance fee to allow them to vote in the straw poll. The only rule, those voting must prove they live or go to school in Iowa. Because of this, the event is a good barometer of a campaign's organization and grassroots outreach.
In 2007, just over 14,000 voted, down significantly for the previous straw poll four years earlier. Because of the drop in participation, and because all money raised from the straw poll goes directly to the Iowa GOP, making the gathering a large fundraiser for the party, the event has come in for criticism.
But one thing's for sure, it has an impact on the battle for the nomination. It can boost a candidate, as it did with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago, or knock one out, as it did to former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson in 2007.
The big question this weekend is which candidates will be boosted, and which ones may fall, this time around.