Ames, Iowa – The race for the Republican presidential nomination came into sharper focus on Saturday as Gov. Rick Perry of Texas declared his candidacy in South Carolina and Michele Bachmannwon a closely watched poll of voters in Iowa.
With Republican enthusiasm swelling over the prospect of defeating President Obama next year, thousands of party activists converged here for the Iowa straw poll. The outcome, combined with the entrance of Mr. Perry, could help reorder the top tier of contenders, with Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry positioned to challenge the perceived front runner, Mitt Romney, and each other.
Ron Paul of Texas, whose libertarian views put him at odds with many Republicans, finished slightly behind Mrs. Bachmann in the straw poll. Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who argued that Mrs. Bachmann was not sufficiently qualified to be the party’s nominee, finished a distant third.
The results of the straw poll provide only a snapshot of the race, but along with Mr. Perry’s announcement, represented a significant reshuffling of the campaign and highlighted a deep uncertainty among Republicans over who would be the strongest nominee. Republicans sense a new opportunity to win back the White House, but there was little clarity about whether voters would choose someone from the party establishment, an outsider or a hybrid.
“You have just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president,” Mrs. Bachmann said, standing outside her campaign bus after she was declared the winner. “This was a wonderful down payment on taking the country back.”
By virtue of his long tenure as governor of Texas, his credentials as a social and fiscal conservative and his fund-raising capability, Mr. Perry has an opportunity to challenge Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who did not actively participate in the straw poll. But first, Mr. Perry will likely have to confront Mrs. Bachmann, whose victory here provides a new opening to raise her profile beyond the Tea Party movement that fueled the rapid rise of her candidacy.
The race, at least in the short term, will focus on this trio: Mr. Romney, who is seen as next in line for the nomination, if the traditional rules of Republican presidential politics apply; Mrs. Bachmann, whose insurgent style has captured the imagination of many conservative activists; and Mr. Perry, who has held elective office his entire adult life, but has tapped into passionate small-government, anti-Washington sentiment within the party.
The straw poll was the first big test of Mrs. Bachmann’s organization, and propelled her to the top of the field in Iowa, whose caucuses open the Republican nominating season early next year. Her coalition included home-schooling parents — T-shirts were made specifically to identify them in the crowd — and members of local churches.
The straw poll here, along with Mr. Perry’s announcement in South Carolina, marked the biggest day yet in the Republican presidential campaign. The events were 1,200 miles apart, but Mr. Perry’s candidacy was a chief topic of conversation here and threatened to upend the contest that has been playing out here for months.
In caravans of cars, vans and buses, party activists and curious voters descended on Iowa State University on a cool, pleasant day. While the candidates repeatedly assailed Washington, the straw poll grounds seemed as though much of Washington had been transported here, with party leaders, television personalities and a collection of interest groups on hand.
Mrs. Bachmann won with 29 percent of the nearly 17,000 votes cast, with Mr. Paul claiming 28 percent. Mr. Pawlenty, who received 14 percent, said his campaign was just beginning, but conceded, “We have a lot more work to do.” Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, won 10 percent. After winning the event four years ago, Mr. Romney declined to wage a campaign, and received just 3 percent of the vote.
It was hardly a perfect laboratory of democracy.
The right to cast a ballot cost $30. Most campaigns footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames. The campaigns poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the political carnival, which is a fund-raiser for the Republican Party of Iowa.
The event unfolded as a daylong pep rally for Republicans, who may have supported different candidates, but were unified around the notion of defeating Mr. Obama.
In speech after speech, the candidates drew the most enthusiastic applause as they delivered forceful criticism of his handling of the economy, the downgrade in the nation’s credit rating and the sustained period of high unemployment.
No candidate invested more in the straw poll than Mr. Pawlenty, who relocated his national campaign operation to Iowa in hopes of jump-starting a candidacy that has flagged since Mrs. Bachmann joined the race in June. A day before the straw poll, he said that he would have to “retrench in some way,” with the prospect of his fund-raising drying up and an expensive overhead to maintain.
Mr. Perry’s entrance could also pose a new threat to Mr. Pawlenty. For weeks, Mr. Pawlenty urged voters to settle on a candidate with executive experience. The candidate who could pick up that argument, several Republicans here said, could be Mr. Perry.
“He’s an attractive candidate,” said Tim Gibson of Clive, Iowa, 59, who stood in line at the straw poll, waiting to cast a write-in vote for Mr. Perry, who won 4 percent of the vote. “He brings leadership to the race. My top priority is winning the election and I want to vote for someone who can win.”
The participation of 16,892 Iowa voters on Saturday represented an increase from 2007, when 14,302 voters turned out for the straw poll. But even with increasing enthusiasm over the prospect of defeating Mr. Obama, the balloting was far less than the 23,685 people who voted in the 1999 poll, which propelled George W. Bush’s candidacy. “The size of today’s crowd is a sign that the Republican resurgence is alive,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
Yet the raw vote totals represented a sliver of the people the campaigns will ultimately need to win over before the Iowa caucuses, which open the party’s nominating fight early next year. The results are not intended to serve as a predictor of things to come, but rather a snapshot of time for the intensity, organization and sentiment surrounding a particular candidate.
The disappointing finish for the Pawlenty campaign is explained, in part, by voters like Dave Freligh, a retired private investigator from Winterset, who carried a green “Pawlenty ’12” T-shirt under his arm. He accepted a ticket from the Pawlenty campaign, but decided to support Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, because he wanted him to keep his candidacy alive so the race would not be dominated by politicians.
“I feel like a little bit of a fraud,” said Mr. Freligh, 67, shrugging as he walked away from the voting area. “Now, I’m waiting to see who has real leadership qualities and who gets my juices going.”