AMES – Waterloo native Michelle Bachmann fired a resounding opening volley in the race for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination Saturday by besting her competitors in the much-watched Iowa GOP straw poll.
“You’ve done it, Iowa,” a beaming Bachmann told her cheering supporters outside Hilton Coliseum – the site of the $30-per-vote fundraiser. “Now it’s on to all 50 states.”
Bachmann thanked her supporters, saying “we did this together” and called Saturday’s victory “the very first step in taking the White House in 2012. “We just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.”
The three-term Minnesota congresswoman finished first with 4,823 votes of the 16,892 Iowa Republicans that cast ballots – a turnout that Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said “blew the doors off what we did four years ago” and was evidence of a resurging party.
Bachmann’s tally was 152 ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who finished second in the first measurable test of early support in the state that will launch the nominating process with its precinct caucuses next year.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a distance third and former Pennsylania Sen. Rick Santorum was a better-than-expected fourth.
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Bachmann’s victory demonstrated the strength of star power and passion over organization, noting she overcame campaign efforts by Paul and Pawlenty that got started much earlier than hers. However, the impressive showing also spoke to her campaign’s support and ability to deliver boots on the ground.
“Michele Bachmann had a very good victory,” he said. “Her bubble was not deflated by this event. So she lives to fight on.
The looming presence for her is Rick Perry because he appeals to exactly the same constituency.”
Bachmann’s victory gives her some early momentum in a still-unfolding GOP presidential race that officially welcomed Perry into the race on Saturday. Even though he has not campaigned in Iowa, his supporters mustered a write-in effort that drew him 718 votes – a sixth-place finish behind Georgia businessman Herman Cain in fifth.
The Texas governor announced his bid in South Carolina and travels to Bachmann’s hometown of Waterloo on Sunday to make his Iowa debut as a 2012 contender. Bachmann also plans to attend the same Black Hawk County GOP event on Sunday.
Romney, who is considered the national fundraiser, did not compete in this year’s straw poll after winning the event in 2007, but still polled 567 votes for seventh place. He plans to campaign in Iowa, but he and Huntsman are devoting most of their attention to New Hampshire — home of the nation’s first 2012 primary eight days after the Iowa caucuses.
Paul spokesman Jesse Benton was elated with Paul’s second-place finish, noting the Texas congressman topped Romney’s 2007 vote total and finished about 1 percent behind Bachmann with the fourth highest vote total ever received in the event.
“Today, Ron Paul has emerged as a top-tier candidate and is a serious contender to win the Republican nomination and the presidency,” Benton said. “Dr. Paul is surging in this race, and today’s results show the strength of his grassroots support and top notch organization.”
Goldford was unconvinced.
“If Paul had won, it would have been taken by people around the country not that the Republican Party did something right, but that Iowa Republicans did something very strange,” Goldford said.
“He’s got a small, devoted core of supporters that’s not going to get much bigger. He did well today, he finished in the top three,” the Drake political scientist added. “In a small pond, a modestly sized rock can make a big splash and that’s what Paul did.”
Pawlenty, who has clashed at times with his Minnesota rival — most recently in Thursday’s televised Ames debate – issued a brief statement congratulating Bachmann.
“We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do,” Pawlenty said in his written statement. “This is a long process to restore America — we are just beginning and I’m looking forward to a great campaign.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who played bass guitar will several bands performing at the various candidate tents outside Hilton Coliseum, said the results likely will pour political gasoline on campaigns that are catching fire and douse those that aren’t with water. Huckabee finished second in the 2007 straw poll and parlayed that into a caucus victory five months later before fading in a nominating race won by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“If (Pawlenty) can raise money over the next month, it won’t kill him,” Goldford said. “If he can’t raise money over the next month, it did kill him.”
Santorum called Saturday’s vote a vindication that his “clear, consistent and proven conservative record” resonates with Americans and was an indication that leadership trumps showmanship, TV commercials and empty promises.
Nearly a dozen Republicans are vying to challenge Democrat Barack Obama in November 2012.
Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who was camped out near the straw poll site, said the 2012 presidential race will offer a sharp contrast for voters. She said it didn’t matter which Republican wins the GOP nomination because “they are all hell-bent to getting to the right of one another.”
“The field is really driven to out-right wing each other,” Wasserman-Schultz told reporters. “I can’t imagine that Rick Perry is going to do anything other than what the other nine or 10 candidates have been doing.”
Bachmann’s air-conditioned tent attracted the largest crowd of Republicans who lined up for meat sundaes and red-meat, tea party politics at the carnival-like venue that enjoyed a one-day run on the Iowa State University campus. Her campaign’s red shirts were a highly visible feature in a festive venue that included men dressed as Revolutionary War Minute Men who extolled her presidential virtues.
“Vote for Bachmann. It’s alright to vote for a woman,” declared one Minute Man-costumed supporter to party activists who also were besieged by campaign paraphernalia, blaring music from multiple stages, a dunk tank, a deficit slide and a host of advocacy groups that bought space at the straw poll site to promote energy, gun rights, deficit reduction, flat tax, health care and a host of other issues.
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