AMES, Iowa — The 2012 Republican presidential race lurched into a new phase Saturday as Iowans weighed in for the first time on their expanding field of presidential hopefuls, picking Michele Bachmann as their top choice for the GOP nomination. Halfway across the country latecomer Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally entered the race, declaring: "America is not broken. Washington, D.C. is broken."
Together, the events were certain to reshuffle the race to face President Barack Obama. Exactly how was anybody's guess, as the candidates sought an early validation that they have widespread appeal, with those further behind in the pack hoping to gain momentum and avoid increased questions over their campaign viability.
A slew of Republicans are seeking the chance to challenge Obama next fall for the leadership of a country facing a recent downgrade in its credit rating, high unemployment and Wall Street tumult. And, from Iowa to South Carolina on Saturday, several of those candidates used their perches before GOP activists in two critical early voting states to castigate the Democratic incumbent and offer themselves as the answer to an ailing America.
"We are going to make Barack Obama a one-term president," Bachmann declared to cheers on the campus of Iowa State University during a daylong political festival. A few hours later, she learned she won the Iowa straw poll and said: "This is the very first step toward taking back the White House!"
Bachmann — the tea party favorite with a following among evangelicals who make up the GOP base in Iowa and elsewhere — got more than 28 percent of the 17,000 votes cast in the nonbinding exercise. It provides clues about each candidate's level of support and campaign organization five months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the Republican primary season.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has support among libertarian-leaning voters, came in a close second. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was looking for a strong showing to boost his struggling campaign, but fared a distant third, raising questions about the future of his candidacy.
"We have a lot more work to do," Pawlenty said, suggesting he wasn't dropping out despite the disappointing finish. "We are just beginning."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was fourth, followed by businessman Herman Cain. Perry — who wasn't on the ballot but was written-in by supporters — came in sixth, just ahead of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who didn't compete in the straw poll. Also on the ballot but barely registering support: former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
The results are hardly predictive of who will win the state's winter precinct caucuses but the outcome can shape the race for the months ahead.
With the victory, Bachmann is all but certain to get a jolt of momentum just as Perry seeks to infringe on her base of tea party and evangelical support. She also made clear that she has a strong get-out-the-vote operation and a wide volunteer base in a state whose caucuses require those elements.
Bachmann, an Iowa native who has shot to the top of polls in the leadoff caucus state since entering the race, has spent weeks meeting privately with ministers, who for years have formed a useful Republican political network in Iowa. Pastors helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee win the 2008 caucuses, and may have done the same for Bachmann on Saturday.
As the day began, thousands of GOP activists gathered at Iowa State University for the late-summer gathering that officially serves as a fundraiser for the state GOP. They ate barbeque and listened to live music under tents on the campus while milling with candidates who delivered speeches inside the university's coliseum, trying to sway still undecided Republican activists.
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.
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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.