Saturdays' Iowa straw poll "the biggest test so far" for many of the Republican presidential wanna-bees taking part, but the results are non-binding and the contest "really doesn't tell us anything about their national standing," says CBS News correspondent Norah O'Donnell.
Still, she added on "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," the straw poll "does say a lot about the campaigns' organization and strategy."
CBS News political analyst John Dickerson said, "It doesn't pick winners, but it can be a graveyard for candidacies.
"In 1999, (Tenn. Sen.) Lamar Alexander made a big effort and then didn't do very well in the straw poll, and that was the end of it for him. He dropped out of the race. (Former Health and Human Services Secretary and ex-Wis. Gov.) Tommy Thompson, in 2007 -- the same thing happened to him.
"So, it doesn't tell us who the winner is, but Iowa doesn't really do that as much as it tells you what the field's going to look like going forward. It winnows out candidates, so this may be the last place for some of these campaigns. They may disappear after the ... straw poll."
O'Donnell told co-anchor Russ Mitchell, "There are high expectations for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (of Minnesota) that she could either win this thing or do very well. (Texas Rep.) Ron Paul always has a very popular following (in Iowa). His campaign wants to do well, and they're admitting they bought thousands of tickets (for supporters to take part in the straw poll). This is a make-or-break moment, in some ways, some people think, for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He's got to show he can excite some voters, that he can turn out people. He doesn't say he has to finish first or second, but that he's got to finish in the front of the pack. So, I think people will be watching less about who's No.1, but who's really in the front of that pack."
Dickerson concurred, saying Pawlenty "probably has the most to lose, because everybody is looking at this as a key test for him. He needs money to continue running, not only in Iowa, but other states. There's a lot of focus on him. Michelle Bachmann has her own special corps of followers. If she didn't come in first, she could still continue. That's (also) very true with Ron Paul. So it's pretty much the (possible) biggest day of trouble for Tim Pawlenty if he doesn't have a big showing."
Looming large is the big political news to be mad outside Iowa, as well on Saturday, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry tosses his hat into the ring.
"There are a number of Iowa Republicans I talked to," O'Donnell said, " ... who are going to vote in the straw poll who said, 'Wow, I wish Governor Perry was here.' He is overshadowing the straw poll a bit by announcing today in South Carolina, then he'll go to New Hampshire and, on Sunday, he's going to come to Iowa and, very interestingly, he's gonna spend three days here in Iowa, which is a remarkable amount of time to spend in Iowa this early in the campaign, and then he goes back to New Hampshire.
"There's a lot of buzz about Rick Perry because ... he excites fiscal conservatives because of the relatively low unemployment in Texas at 8.2 percent, below the national average, he excites social conservatives, religious conservatives, so he is definitely going to be a player in this contest."
Sarah Palin is also in Iowa but, Dickerson observes, "No one really knows" what she's doing there. "Sarah Palin," he notes, "says she's still thinking about running. She is a little bit predictable though: When something big is happening for other candidates - (former Mass. Gov.) Mitt Romney, when he was announcing in New Hampshire, Sarah Palin showed up. When there's the big straw poll in Ames, Iowa, Sarah Palin shows up. So she at least wants to be a part of the conversation, and that's indeed what she's done again here by showing up out of the blue."
"What's really interesting about Sarah Palin is, just as John mentioned," O'Donnell pointed out, "likes to show up at the events, but sort of doesn't want to say whether she's running or not for president -- just wants some of the attention, and was asked a lot of questions about Michele Bachmann, the other woman in the race, and took the opportunity to weigh in and criticize that (controversial, unflattering) Newsweek cover (photo) of Michele Bachmann saying she did not think it was fair."
But Palin still excites crows, O'Donnell says, and "does still have kind of a following. She was the Republican vice presidential nominee in the last election, so she has wide name recognition. She is sometimes referred to as a 'celebeutician,' meaning a celebrity and a politician ... so she can still certainly draw a crowd."