Thus far, we have been watching the campaign season in its age of innocence. We've enjoyed watching these candidates edge slowly into the race. The fake candidacies of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin gave us all some chuckles. We stood by and watched heartbreak ensue after everyone realized that Mitch Daniels wasn't going to run. And we wondered why anyone scheduled debates so early in the process. But now, it's time for us to dedicate Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be Woman Soon" (or, if you prefer, the beloved Urge Overkill version of the same) to this campaign, because after this weekend, everything changes.
Well, that's what the media will say, anyway. But they sort of have a point. This weekend's Ames Straw Poll will play a hand in reordering the field and resetting the competition, even if we don't quite understand why that should be. At the very least, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty knows he has to do well -- and do well in a way that leads a consensus of political thought-havers to agree -- or he may not last much longer.
The field, for the most part, treated Thursday night's pre-poll debate as a thing that had some high stakes. And Pawlenty, needing to go on the attack against someone, let the simmering feud he'd been having with Michele Bachmann finally boil over. He said she didn't have his record of accomplishment. She said his accomplishments made him look like Barack Obama. He went back at her for serial distortions. She insisted she was a fighter.
And yet, it all looked so small! Especially after Ron Paul and Rick Santorum broke with each other over serious differences in foreign policy philosophy. Their fight was the more riveting, the more substantive. Pawlenty and Bachmann, on the other hand, were locked in a death battle over...a picayune cigarette tax levied against Minnesotans? Was this the epic battle we'd signed up to witness?
On a night where everyone either held serve or lost ground and no big winner could be crowned, Mitt Romney stayed focused on criticizing Obama, the guy he expects to face next summer. Herman Cain said that America needed to get his jokes. Jon Huntsman said his economic plans were coming -- because who knew he'd be asked what his economic plan was on his first debate, at a time where the economy was terrible? Ron Paul got his supporters roaring as reliably as ever. Bachmann continually advocated in favor of the United States defaulting on its debt and the economic calamity that would ensue -- and only Rick Santorum kind of called her on it. Just about everyone had something unkind to say about gay people. Newt Gingrich has something unkind to say about the super Congress and Fox News' "gotcha questions." The audience had unkind things to say about Byron York's question about Bachmann being a "submissive wife."
And it was pretty good television, crisply presented and devoid of the substanceless "this or that" inquiries with which CNN wasted America's time. But one couldn't help but notice the absence of an important figure -- a guy who Fox asked about, despite his absence: Texas Governor Rick Perry.
That's the other way this race is going to change. After this weekend, all signs point to Perry joining us in the Speculatron, because he's fixing to bigfoot all of this week's Iowa festivities and seize the newscycle for himself. Perry's entrance is expected to alter the terrain significantly. We'll know pretty soon whether all of the support that Michele Bachmann has won during these first few weeks of campaigning will stick with her, or drain away in Perry's direction. And down the line, we're going to find out whether Perry can knit up the disparate parts of the GOP base, and -- with perhaps a touch more authenticity -- knock off Mitt.
But the week was not just about the debate, Ames and the coming of Rick Perry. Michele Bachmann was the focus of two big profiles -- but only one drew attention for its reporting. Jon Huntsman touted a huge endorsement that ended up impressing no one. Fred Karger's debate exclusion may have paid off in a different way. Herman Cain got beat up for doing something nice, Newt Gingrich got way into science, Mitt Romney related to "people" in a new way, and Barack Obama may to worry about the guy who was in The Adjustment Bureau. All of this and more is waiting for you, so please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of August 12, 2011.