DES MOINES, Iowa -- Welcome to the state that may decide Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney's top competition.
Rep. Michele Bachmann's entry into the campaign ensures that the spotlight will shine bright on the leadoff caucus state – and the tea party darling from Minnesota with Iowa roots – despite suggestions that Iowa's influence of the 2012 Republican presidential contest is waning. She will go head-to-head with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a state he has said he must win or do very well in.
Iowa also is fertile ground for the latest Republican to say he's considering running – Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a tax-cutting social conservative.
"The goal of Iowa this time seems to be to winnow the field to see who is going to be the main challenger to Mitt Romney," said Bob Haus, a veteran Iowa Republican campaign strategist.
Republicans who compete in Iowa's February caucuses will be looking to emerge with enough momentum to mount a strong challenge to Romney in New Hampshire, where the former Massachusetts governor is focusing.
It seemed Iowa's prominence was in doubt just a week ago.
Romney made clear he would have a more limited presence in the state and would bypass its test vote – the Iowa straw poll – in August. He spent $10 million in Iowa for the 2008 race, including $1.5 million to win the 2007 straw poll, but came in second in the caucuses after failing to persuade evangelicals and social conservatives to overlook wariness of his Mormon faith and his reversals on some cultural issues.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor kicking off his campaign next week, also said he wouldn't compete here at all, saying his opposition to agricultural and energy subsidies was a political non-starter in this corn-growing state. His past support for same-sex civil unions and his Mormon faith could be hurdles, too.
Also, Newt Gingrich's once-promising Iowa presence turned doubtful after the former House speaker's six Iowa campaign staffers quit as part of a staff exodus. He has scrapped a planned appearance this weekend in Des Moines.
A few weeks earlier, the 2008 caucus victor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, opted out of another run.
In that last presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., vastly scaled back his Iowa presence after going broke. He finished fourth in the caucuses, only to regain his footing in New Hampshire en route to winning the nomination.
For decades, Iowa has enjoyed outsized attention from national politicians because it holds the first contest in the Republican and Democratic processes to choose presidential nominees.
Iowa Republicans picked the candidates who ended up winning the nomination in 1996 and 2000. More often, the caucuses have sent would-be challengers on to New Hampshire, where they confronted the front-runners, such as in 1980 and 1988.
This year, with the election focused on the economy, Republicans in Iowa and across the nation have worried aloud that Christian conservatives, who make up the core of the caucus electorate, and a large number of campaign events sponsored by church and Christian advocacy organizations were distorting the importance of social issues and marginalizing the significance of the caucuses.
Last month, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, urged candidates of all ideological stripes to participate.
"Iowa is a full-spectrum state," said the conservative who campaigned mainly on economic issues and beat a leading voice of the evangelical movement. "The primary election I won last year proves that."
After a rough couple of weeks, Iowa immediately seemed to get its groove back on Monday when Bachmann announced she was running for president.
Iowa is important to her strategy. She plans to kick off her campaign from her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa, this month, and longtime adviser Andy Parrish announced he was moving to the state. She has aggressively courted pastors and Christian home-school advocates, critical to Huckabee's victory in 2008. And, she has attracted rising stars in Iowa's tea party community, such as her Iowa campaign director, state Sen. Kent Sorenson.
A strong showing in Iowa for Bachmann could scatter other candidates hoping for a foothold in the evangelical or tea-party camps, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Pawlenty is building a traditional organization in Iowa, with top state consultants and national advisers with state ties. He plans to compete aggressively in the August straw poll.
To introduce himself to voters Pawlenty is sending his first direct mail advertisement to Iowa households this week. He has made about 15 trips to Iowa since 2009 and plans to spend some 15 days in Iowa in July. He hasn't ruled out running television advertising ahead of the straw poll.
While Pawlenty is courting social conservatives and tea party supporters, he may be more likely than Bachmann to emerge from Iowa as the establishment alternative to Romney.
"These underdog candidates, even if they don't win, can become competitive by scoring in Iowa," said Charlie Black, a 30-year veteran GOP presidential campaign strategist. "For Pawlenty, Bachmann, Santorum, Iowa is still critical."
Still a question is whether Perry will run. Some of his supporters have made calls into Iowa since the three-term governor started weighing a presidential campaign. His aides say he won't make any moves until the Texas Legislature's special session ends in late June.
The three-term governor could bridge the establishment and non-establishment camps.
"He's strong on the jobs and economy side and can raise money," said David Lane, a national evangelical political activist who is now helping Perry organize a daylong prayer meeting in Houston in August. "But you couple that with the evangelical influence important to Iowa and he is an attractive hybrid."
Romney, to be sure, is watching the developments closely even as he maintains a low profile. He has only two paid staff in Iowa, has visited only once this year and has no plans to visit before mid-August, when he expects to participate in the nationally televised debate.
Still, advisers say Romney could step up his campaign in Iowa after the straw poll if the campaign's dynamics change.
Said senior Romney Iowa adviser David Kochel: "We've got to be prepared to deliver beyond our expectations."