With Romney not competing, the event was a chance for some of the underdogs to try to emerge as the grassroots challenger to the GOP front-runner in national polls. For some candidates, it was about gaining momentum with strong or surprising performances. Others hoped to prove their viability.
Pawlenty, who is banking on a strong showing in the caucuses, had a lot on the line. He's ranked low in polls despite laying the groundwork for a campaign over the past two years and has struggled to gain traction against an unexpectedly strong challenge from Bachmann in Iowa, a state critical to both of their candidacies.
Paul, for his part, was hoping for a surprise showing in hopes that would convince Republicans that he was more mainstream than not in his second shot at the GOP nomination.
The crowd ate up both his speech and Cain's.
But it was Bachmann who clearly stole the show.
In a speech earlier in the day, the energetic three-term congresswoman emphasized her credentials as a native Iowan and a devout opponent of abortion and gay marriage.
"I love Iowans," she said, adding: "In Iowa, we are social conservatives and we will never be ashamed of being social conservatives."
A bit later, Bachmann danced on the stage with her husband to an Elvis Presley song before 3,000 supporters who packed into her tent; hundreds more crowded outside hoping for a glimpse.
"There is no doubt in my mind we are the team that can't be beat in 2012," Bachmann shouted from the stage.
Roughly 1,200 miles away, Perry sought to overshadow the summer's marquee event in the GOP race by delivering his first speech as a full-fledged candidate in Charleston, S.C.
"It is time to get America working again," Perry declared, casting himself as a job-creating Washington, D.C., outsider. "We just got to get back to the basic truths of economic success."
He first disclosed his plans in a conference call with South Carolina activists, saying: "I full well believe I'm going to win."
Then, he plunged into his campaign before an overflow crowd at the conservative RedState bloggers gathering in South Carolina, introducing himself as a small-town Texan who met his future wife at age 8.
He focused heavily on Obama in his remarks, and struck a populist tone, saying: "We reject this president's unbridled fixation on taking more money out of the wallets and pocketbooks of American families and employers and giving it to a central government."
And he added: "I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on. Because a great country requires a better direction. Because a renewed nation needs a new president."
With that, he headed to New Hampshire, another important primary state, to begin his grass-roots outreach in earnest at a house party — just as Bachmann was announced the straw poll victor in a state where the two are likely to go head to head.
That matchup begins Sunday when they appear at the same county GOP event.
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