AMES, Iowa — A test vote under way, Republicans running for the White House wooed Iowans Saturday by assailing President Barack Obama and offering themselves as the answer to an America plagued by high unemployment, rising debt and stock market swings.
"We know what America needs. But unfortunately Barack Obama has no clue. He's like a manure spreader in a windstorm," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said, adding "Mr. President, get the government off our backs." That elicited chants of his nickname: "T-Paw! T-Paw! T-Paw!"
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann stressed her Iowa roots — she was born in Waterloo — as well as her faith, her opposition to abortion rights and her support of heterosexual marriage. She earned cheers when she declared: "We are going to make Barack Obama a one-term president."
As they and several of their rivals made last-minute appeals inside an Iowa State University coliseum, thousands of Iowa Republicans munched on barbecue, listened to live music — and most importantly in the candidates' eyes — cast ballots in the Iowa Straw Poll, the first indication of how the Republicans trying to unseat Obama are faring with the GOP base.
The results of this nonbinding vote in the state that leads off the Republican presidential nominating season were due out just hours after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race.
"I full well believe I'm going to win," Perry told South Carolina voters on a conference call about an hour before he kicked off the campaign with a speech in Charleston.
"It's time to get America working again," he declared as he became an official candidate. "America is not broken. Washington, D.C. is broken."
Despite Perry's best efforts to overshadow the day, the epicenter of the presidential contest was in this Midwestern town.
Nine candidates were on the ballot, and voting was slated to run six hours during the daylong political festival on the campus of Iowa State University.
Bachmann, riding high since entering the race earlier this summer, was hoping a strong finish would give her even more momentum just as Perry looks to infringe on her base of tea party and evangelical support. She invoked God and faith as she stressed what she called her conservative values, saying: "In Iowa, we are social conservatives and we will never be ashamed of being social conservatives."
Pawlenty also had a lot on the line. He's ranked low in polls and was looking to prove he was still a viable candidate. He argued that he was the candidate of results, given his record as Minnesota governor. Trying to control expectations, he predicted the results would show "momentum." He did not promise his supporters a win.
Paul, with a following among libertarian-leaning voters, was looking for a surprise showing in hopes that it would convince Republicans that he was more mainstream than not in his second shot at the GOP nomination. He referenced his fellow Texan's entrance in the race and said he didn't anticipate many of his supporters jumping ship for what he called a "super-establishment candidate."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also were on the ballot. So were GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, though they weren't competing in the contest.
Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who made a splash Friday when she visited the state fair, weren't on the ballot. But their supporters planned write-in campaigns that could outpace candidates who have spent months trying to line up supporters to participate.
The poll results are nonbinding, amount to a popularity contest and offer candidates a chance to test their get-out-the-vote organizations. Nonetheless, the outcome may provide a road map for the Iowa campaign heading into the caucuses that are just four months away.
To the state party chairman, Matt Strawn, the poll "is the first measurable proving ground" for the field.
Poor showings usually force some candidates, mostly those who are not well-known and are struggling to raise money, to abandon their bids, and that could happen this year, too.
"We can win this thing," Santorum insisted, urging his supporters to defy expectations.
Those willing to shell out $30 for a ticket were eligible to vote, though some campaigns paid for tickets they distributed to backers. Some also organized bus caravans to bring backers to the event. Turnout in the past has ranged from 14,000 to 23,000.
The straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the outcome of the precinct caucuses.
In 2008, Romney won the straw poll, but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but dropped from the race soon after. McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn't compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.