Iowa Poll Goes to Bachmann

AMES, Iowa — The race for the Republican presidential nomination entered a new phase on Saturday as Gov. Rick Perry of Texas declared his candidacy in South Carolina and Michele Bachmann won a closely watched poll of voters in Iowa.

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Barry Simons paused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. More Photos »
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Michele Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, greeted voters during the poll on Saturday. More Photos »
With Republican enthusiasm swelling over the prospect of defeating President Obama next year, thousands of party activists and voters converged here for the Iowa straw poll. The outcome provided a snapshot of the campaign that could help reorder the top tier of contenders as candidates move into a critical five-month stretch before the nominating contest begins.

“We did this together,” Mrs. Bachmann said, standing outside her campaign bus after she was declared the winner. “This is the very first step toward taking the White House in 2012.”

Ron Paul of Texas, whose libertarian views put him at odds with many Republicans, finished just a few votes behind Mrs. Bachmann. Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who had sternly warned voters against supporting Mrs. Bachmann’s candidacy, finished a distant third.

The results of the straw poll, along with the arrival of Mr. Perry in the race, represented a turning point in the campaign, but also underscored an uncertainty in the Republican contest to find a nominee to challenge Mr. Obama. Republicans sense a new opportunity at the chance to win back the White House, but there was little clarity about whether voters would choose someone from the party establishment or an outsider — or a hybrid.

By virtue of his long tenure as governor of Texas, his credentials as a social and fiscal conservative and his fund-raising capability, Mr. Perry has an opportunity to challenge the perceived front-runner in the race, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who did not actively participate in the straw poll. Mrs. Bachmann’s victory here gives her the opportunity to increase her profile, raise more money and begin building a national organization.

The straw poll in Ames, along with Mr. Perry’s announcement in South Carolina, marked the biggest day yet in the Republican presidential campaign. The events were 1,200 miles apart, but Mr. Perry’s entry into the race was a chief topic of discussion here as Republicans turned out by the thousands to deliver an early judgment on the field.

In caravans of cars, vans and buses, party activists and curious voters descended on the campus of Iowa State University on a cool, pleasant summer day. While the candidates repeatedly assailed Washington, the straw poll grounds seemed as though much of Washington had been transported here, with party leaders, television personalities and a collection of interest groups on hand.

It was hardly a perfect laboratory of democracy.

The right to cast a ballot cost $35. Most campaigns footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames. The campaigns poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the political carnival, which is a fund-raiser for the Republican Party of Iowa.

The event unfolded as a daylong pep rally for Republicans, who may have supported different candidates, but were unified around the notion of defeating Mr. Obama. In speech after speech, the candidates drew the most enthusiastic applause when they expressed optimism for taking back the White House.

“We are going to make Barack Obama a one-term president,” Mrs. Bachmann said, pausing for emphasis as the crowd chanted the words “One! Term! President!” right along with her. “Iowa will be the pace car, if you will, to set the tone and set the pace to bring this country back to its greatness.”

No candidate invested more in the straw poll than Mr. Pawlenty, who relocated his national campaign operation to Iowa in hopes of jump-starting a candidacy that has flagged since Mrs. Bachmann joined the race in June. In the event of a poor showing, he said he would have to “retrench in some way,” with the prospect of his fund-raising drying up and an expensive overhead to maintain.

Even before Mr. Pawlenty finished a distant third, Mr. Perry’s candidacy posed a new complication for him. For weeks, Mr. Pawlenty urged voters to settle on a candidate with executive experience. The candidate who could pick up that argument, several Republicans here said, could be Mr. Perry.

“He’s an attractive candidate,” said Tim Gibson of Clive, Iowa, 59, who stood in line at the straw poll, waiting to cast a write-in vote for Mr. Perry. “He brings leadership to the race. My top priority is winning the election and I want to vote for someone who can win.”

It remains an open question what long-term effect Mr. Perry will have on the race. But the short-term implications were clear, with his candidacy opening just as the Republican field enters a new — and potentially clarifying — phase. But several voters said on Saturday that they did not know much about Mr. Perry and were eager to learn more before joining his campaign.

The participation of 16,892 Iowa voters on Saturday represented an increase from 2007, when 14,302 voters turned out for the straw poll. But even with swelling enthusiasm over the prospect of defeating Mr. Obama, the balloting was far less than the 23,685 people who voted in the 1999 poll, which propelled George W. Bush’s candidacy.

“The size of today’s crowd is a sign that the Republican resurgence is alive,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

The raw vote totals represented a sliver of the people the campaigns will ultimately need to win over before the Iowa caucuses, which open the party’s nominating fight early next year. The results are not intended to serve as a predictor of things to come, but rather a snapshot of time for the intensity, organization and sentiment surrounding a particular candidate.

The disappointment facing the Pawlenty campaign is rooted in voters like Dave Freligh, a retired private investigator from Winterset, who carried a green “Pawlenty ’12” T-shirt under his arm. He accepted a ticket from the Pawlenty campaign, but decided to support Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, because he wanted him to keep his candidacy alive so the race would not be dominated by politicians.

“I feel like a little bit of a fraud,” said Mr. Freligh, 67, shrugging as he walked away from the voting area. “Now, I’m waiting to see who has real leadership qualities and who gets my juices going.”

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