Crunch Time for 2012 Contenders

Obama, Republican hopefuls face a month of challenges.

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The next month is shaping up as a crucial period in the 2012 presidential race.

For Republicans, it will be a time to test campaign themes and intensify their tug of war for the nomination. Kicking off the latest, more active phase of the GOP race will be a candidates' debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa, followed on Saturday by a straw poll there. The Iowa Republican party uses this straw poll every four years to raise money, and most of the candidates oblige by buying tickets for their supporters, busing them in, and attempting to show organization muscle.

The Ames poll is not a reliable predictor of the winner of the Iowa caucuses, which will be held in January or February, but candidates can use the poll to at least temporarily break out of the pack. In the current cyle, former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minn. Rep. Michelle Bachmann and others hope the straw poll will give them a boost. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the front runner in national polls, is not competing actively in the straw poll. [See photos of Michele Bachmann.]

Another big event will be the decision by Texas Gov. Rick Perry on whether he will join the race. He is expected to jump in within the next few weeks, and could be a formidable candidate with a strong fund-raising base and support among Tea Party activists and conservative Christians.

And there will be another GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California on Sept. 7.

On the issues, the unemployment rate, which has been hovering around 9 percent for months, has prompted the GOP candidates to step up their attacks on President Obama. "Today's unemployment report represents the 30th straight month that the jobless rate has been above 8 per cent," Romney said on Friday after the latest federal jobs report was issued. "When you see what this president has done to the economy in just three years, you know why America doesn't want to find out what he can do in eight." [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For President Obama, the next month will be a time when he tries to "pivot" from the recent battles in Washington on the debt ceiling and other matters to the all-important issue of job creation. Obama strategists say he needs to show the country that he empathizes with those in economic trouble and is developing programs to help them. He plans to get out of Washington as much as possible in the next few weeks, starting with a trip Thursday to Holland, Michigan to disuss the recovery of the auto industry, and highlighted by a three-day bus tour through the Midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota starting Aug. 15.

The economy is Obama's biggest vulnerability, and there seems to be bad news everywhere. Last week, the jobless rate was pegged at 9.1 percent, only a slight improvement from the 9.2 percent of the previous month. The stock market plunged 513 points on a single day, followed by a downgrade by Standard & Poor's of the nation's AAA credit rating. Some economists fret that another recession is in store. [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says his recent focus groups show that many Americans are still hoping that Obama succeeds but voters are increasingly frustrated that he and congressional leaders haven't been able to solve the nation's problems. That makes for a bad political environment for Washington incumbents, led by the president.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
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