WATERLOO, Iowa (MCT) — It's a new race for Republicans as they head toward fall seeking a 2012 presidential nominee to challenge President Barack Obama.
They have a new top tier of choices: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. And in an unusually open race for a party prone to nominating the next in line, they remain open to any of them, having refused to rally behind any one person.
"Republicans still haven't found their champion," said Iowa political analyst Dennis Goldford.
Bachmann emerged from a weekend straw poll the front-runner in Iowa, the state that will begin the voting next winter.
The last Republican to win the White House was much stronger at this point in his own party than any of the contenders now.
Twelve years ago, George W. Bush roared into Iowa, taking 7,418 votes in a surging turnout for the straw poll, or 31.3 percent. He was 10 points ahead of his nearest competitor, businessman Steve Forbes.
On Saturday, Bachmann won 4,823 votes, 28.6 percent of a much smaller turnout. She barely edged out Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who won 4,671 votes, or 27.7 percent.
But even as one Iowa rival dropped out of the race — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota — she found a far more formidable challenger invading her hometown of Waterloo Sunday evening.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas jumped at an invitation to a country Republican dinner to pitch his message of jobs and social conservatism.
"If we don't get a president of the United States who gets this country working, we are in trouble...I've got a track record of doing that," Perry told the crowd at the Black Hawk County Republican Party's Lincoln Day fundraiser. "Since 2009, 40 percent of all the jobs created in America were created in the state of Texas."
"He's excellent. He's my top choice," said Mike Peters, a Republican from Waterloo. "He's both a social and economic conservative. And he has experience as a governor who created jobs. He may have the best chance to beat Obama."
A few minutes later, Bachmann addressed the same crowd.
"We are a movement...of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives," Bachmann said. "We will take the country back, I know that it's going to happen."
Neither Bachmann nor Perry mentioned the other.
Perry's appearance at the dinner underscored how quickly the contest has changed.
Just six weeks ago, none of the announced candidates nor Perry would commit to speak at Black Hawk County Republican Party Lincoln Day fund aising dinner. But then they all wanted to be there.
Bachmann's campaign at first wouldn't commit, saying she didn't want to be locked into coming if she had lost the straw poll the day before.
"They said she wanted to come if she wins. We said no, commit to it or nothing," said Black Hawk County Republican Party Chairman Mac McDonald.
As Perry this week firmed up his plan to enter the Republican race, he jumped at the chance to upstage Bachmann in her home. "Perry was the first to respond, McDonald said. "He said yes on Tuesday"
Bachmann followed suit, agreeing on Thursday to appear.
While Perry arrived two hours early to mingle and shake hands, as did former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Bachmann swept in late, just before speaking.
"Bachmann's a fighter. She can energize a crowd," McDonald said. .
But her appeal isn't the same as Perry's, the county chairman said. "Bachmann's never run anything. A small business isn't the same as running a state government. The governors, they've run things."
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