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GOP's large field of contenders battle to survive Iowa test

Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, their presidential hopes on the line, made last-minute appeals Friday along with a slew of other Republican contenders ahead of a big weekend test in Iowa that could winnow the large field of GOP candidates.

But the pack was expanding, too.

Today's Iowa Straw Poll results will be the first important measure of the GOP pack -- just as Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially announces his candidacy and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin works energetically to keep her door open.

"I don't want to step on anybody's feet," she said Friday as she visited the Iowa State Fair and as she weighs whether to enter the race.

Elsewhere, Perry was putting the final preparations on his announcement and gave a preview Friday night with a speech in Alabama.

He didn't reveal his plans at the event, but sounded like a candidate, asking those present to send him text messages so he could get their phone numbers in his database.

"There is still a whole world of work to be done in Washington, D.C., and we need to send truly fiscal conservatives to Washington to get it done," he said.

In Iowa, it was a frenetic day of campaigning in the hours before the straw poll. Thursday night's debate featuring eight Republican candidates didn't fundamentally change the dynamics of the race.

Four months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney leads national polls and many states' surveys for the chance to challenge President Obama next fall. But there is no shortage of rivals looking to emerge the top alternative to the former Massachusetts governor who lost the GOP nomination in 2008.

Among them are former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota -- rivals who have the most at stake in today's straw poll.

They went after each other during Thursday's debate, and the tit-for-tat continued Friday.

"We're not going to have a nominee, or we're not going to put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn't achieved results during their service in Congress," Pawlenty said of Bachmann. "Nobody's questioning her spine; we're questioning her lack of results."

Bachmann defended her record in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, casting herself as a top opponent in the debate over Obama's health care plan and "the leading voice, almost the lone voice in the wilderness of Washington, fighting against raising the debt ceiling."

Pawlenty, who has been languishing in early Iowa polls, is out to prove he is a strong player in the GOP race by scoring a victory in the straw poll, while Bachmann hopes to build on momentum she has enjoyed since entering the race earlier this summer.

Seven other candidates are on the ballot in voting that runs for six hours during the daylong political festival that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. They include Romney, who won the straw poll four years ago but isn't actively competing this time in the nonbinding contest, and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who has been bypassing Iowa almost entirely in his hunt for the nomination.

Perry and Palin aren't on the ballot, but their supporters are waging write-in campaigns.

Others on the list, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, hope for surprise showings at the event on the campus of Iowa State University.

"It's fairly wide open," said Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway.

In another development, Romney's financial records, submitted Friday to meet a deadline set by the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, valued his fortune at $86 million to $264 million. The campaign, however, reported his wealth within a range of $190 million to $250 million.

The new records make clear that Romney is much wealthier than Obama or any of Romney's GOP opponents.

A day before the vote, a circuslike atmosphere was emerging as campaigns erected giant tents where they will bring in bands and serve barbecue to court activists. Republicans wouldn't speculate how many people will spend $30 each to attend the event, but turnout in past elections has ranged from 14,000 to 23,000.

The straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the outcome of the precinct caucuses.

In the past election cycle, Romney won the straw poll but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses but dropped from the race soon after. John McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn't compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.