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DES MOINES - In an effort to salvage his rocky presidential campaign, Tim Pawlenty hit the Iowa State Fair like a whirlwind on Friday, flipping burgers, cracking jokes and pressing the attack on his chief rival, fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann.
But there seemed to be little question that with 24 hours to go before the Ames Straw Poll, Pawlenty's campaign needs a jolt. He got mixed reviews for Thursday's rough debate exchange with Bachmann, and a key fundraiser in New Hampshire jumped ship for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Even Rush Limbaugh, in his nationally syndicated radio show heard in Des Moines, told his conservative listeners that the consensus among Republicans was that Pawlenty was nearly done.
Meanwhile, Bachmann, who by some accounts is the odds-on favorite to win the poll, needed a golf cart and an Iowa State Patrol escort to wade through the curious throngs of fairgoers, some calling out her name, others heckling her. Bachmann, unfazed, led her signature chant that she would make President Obama a "one...term...president." She never mentioned Pawlenty.
In the farm town of Indianola, Bachmann made an 11th-hour appeal in the parking lot of the Sports Page Bar for supporters willing to trek to Ames and cast a ballot for her.
"We will be happy to help with all the logistics," she implored a crowd of 50 townspeople sitting in a circle of folding chairs. "Come up on a horse, put on your roller skates, but come up to Ames."
Two young men holding iPads and wads of tickets were on hand to sign up supporters. Albert Calaway, the retired pastor of the First Assembly of God Church across the street, snapped up two tickets, one for him, one for his wife.
Calaway said he had studied all the Republican candidates, and was going with Bachmann because of the strength of her convictions on faith and fiscal austerity in Washington, where he sees government spending gone out of whack.
"You can't spend money you don't have," Calaway said. "That is a biblical truth."
Ralph Shaw, a retired businessman and political independent, left the rally personally undecided, but convinced that "Michele's going to win."
That seemed to be the conventional wisdom in Iowa political circles, except for the tight circle around Pawlenty, who spent part of the day fending off questions about their candidate's political future.
"If we do really bad, we'll have to reassess," Pawlenty told reporters at a political breakfast in Des Moines. He also attempted to put an upbeat spin on his campaign's fortunes, which have plummeted in the polls since a poor showing in June's New Hampshire debate.
"We're seeing some nice movement in the numbers," he said. "I can't tell you that we're gonna win it tomorrow or that we need to win it."
Even as Pawlenty acknowledged potential retrenchment, the former governor appeared to relax in the last hours of what has become a do-or-die contest for him, appearing to put away the talking points designed to be a dog whistle to conservatives and rediscovering the affable campaign style that marked his Minnesota political career.
"I think, if you got to know him, he's the kind of person you'd want as your neighbor," former First Lady Mary Pawlenty told a State Fair crowd.
In time-honored tradition, Pawlenty stopped at the pork booth to flip some porcine burgers, asking a reporter how they looked. The reporter replied they looked done, then asked if he would be done if he doesn't do well on Saturday.
"That's good. That's good," Pawlenty responded with a laugh. He did not confirm or deny his predicament.
Nearly two years into his presidential campaign effort, Pawlenty was upfront about his need to do well in this initial sorting contest. The straw poll seldom predicts a winner but can be ruthlessly efficient at winnowing the field. Pawlenty acknowledged he would need to place toward the front of the candidate pack vying in the Saturday test.
'Cavalry has arrived'
There were signs Friday that Pawlenty's retrenchment may have already begun. He has not released any schedule for events after the straw poll and doesn't distribute campaign signs like candy, as does Bachmann.
The last hours before the poll found Pawlenty surrounded by a coterie of trusted Minnesotans who have known him for years. As he wandered the State Fair, he was accompanied by a longtime gubernatorial staffers, his wife and the press secretary that started with him well before he raised a dime for his presidential campaign.
On Friday afternoon, a horde of Minnesotans convoyed to Iowa to lend a hand.
"Don't worry, @timpawlenty. Your cavalry has arrived in Ames," Peter Glessing, a former Minnesota House staffer, said on Twitter.
But some GOP insiders in Iowa weren't hearing any bugles over the hill. Des Moines attorney Jeff Courter, a Republican activist, said he plans to go to Ames on Saturday to cast a write-in vote for Perry. "A lot of my friends who work for Pawlenty say they feel strongly there's a surge of support for him," Courter said. "I don't see it."
Meanwhile, Bachmann reveled in a State Fair crowd that was easily three times the size of Pawlenty's.
"It doesn't get any better than that," she said with a satisfied smile.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.