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Bachmann, Paul soar in Iowa’s straw poll

Pawlenty distant third; Romney way back in event he didn’t contest

By Matt Viser and Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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AMES, Iowa - Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won the Republican straw poll here last night, giving her campaign a significant boost while severely clouding the future of her home-state rival, former governor Tim Pawlenty.

Bachmann won 28.6 percent of the votes, becoming the first female candidate to win the informal contest in a state that holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Pawlenty came in third, trailing Representative Ron Paul of Texas, which is a severe blow to a campaign that has struggled to show signs of traction.

“This is the first step towards taking the White House in 2012 and we have just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president,’’ Bachmann said after stepping out of her blue campaign bus, where she had broken down in tears and hugged her husband for a long while after learning of her victory. “You’ve done it, Iowa. Now it’s on to all 50 states.’’

The poll holds no official significance, and with nearly 17,000 ballots cast, participants represent less than 3 percent of the 640,000 Republicans registered in the state. But it is the first time Republicans are formally voicing their opinions on the still-fluid field of candidates. The result often helps whittle the slate, sending a clear signal to candidates who should pack their bags and go home, and it helps fund-raisers decide which candidates they should get behind.

Candidates who finish lower than they expected often choose to drop out of the race if they are unable to show signs of political promise six months before the nominating contest formally begins.

“It’s a big boost for her,’’ Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the caucuses in 2008, told reporters. “Whoever wins or comes in second, they get gas for their fire. Whoever doesn’t, they get water for theirs.’’

Bachmann has used solid debate performances and a spunky rhetorical style to energize supporters drawn to her devout conservatism. But the straw poll was a crucial test of whether she could convert the energy around her into actual votes.

“It’s very important we come back to Iowa,’’ said Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s campaign manager. “We have to come back and win the caucus.’’

Pawlenty had perhaps the most at stake, and, by most estimates, desperately needed to show some signs of strength. His campaign began with high hopes that he would be able to win votes using his everyman appeal and his experience as a conservative governor of a liberal state.

He spent weeks campaigning throughout Iowa, visiting coffee shops and GOP dinners. He hired a top-rate team of consultants in the state and committed to the long slog of organizing supporters and getting them signed up.

He was hoping to use the straw poll to lift his profile, but he will probably now have to recast his campaign; some speculate he may drop out, though yesterday he said he would not. He garnered only 13.6 percent of the vote.

Pawlenty issued a brief statement last night congratulating Bachmann and saying: “We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do.’’

The day was also marked by a political event hundreds of miles from here. Governor Rick Perry of Texas announced his candidacy in South Carolina. His name wasn’t on the ballot - nor would he arrive in Iowa until today - but his presence was heavily felt thanks to an organized write-in effort by supporters who got him 4.3 percent of the votes, which was slightly better than current national front-runner Mitt Romney, who got 3.4 percent.

While many dismiss the poll’s significance, hordes of media descended upon this college town in the center of the state to witness the spectacle. Paul, whose campaign paid $31,000 for primo real estate on the university grounds, hosted a sprawling compound of tents and an inflatable two-story slide called “The Sliding Dollar.’’

“Others will come into the race,’’ Paul told a large, enthusiastic crowd of supporters wearing red Ron Paul T-shirts. “They’re looking for the super establishment candidate who can challenge us, but it won’t dilute our vote.’’

Paul, who took 27.7 percent of the vote, has an ardent group of supporters, and has proven adept at mobilizing them and winning straw polls. Most political observers and polls, however, suggest he will have trouble with a more broad-based national campaign.

Paul placed fifth in Ames in 2007, drawing 9.1 percent of the votes. This year he had predicted a better finish.

As voters arriving in the early morning on fleets of buses funded by campaigns made their way across the parking lot to the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University, Perry volunteers handed out fliers telling Iowans to gather at noon to watch the governor’s announcement speech streamed live at a designated tent. A couple hundred showed up for the broadcast.

“We came here to seal the deal,’’ said Lauren Pierce, president of the college Republicans club at University of Texas at Austin. “It’s kind of weird because everyone in Iowa expects such individualized attention from all the candidates. They are very spoiled here. They’re upset, angry at us almost, because he’s not here.’’

Pierce’s friend, another University of Texas student, assured voters that Perry would be in town today, with expected appearances at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines and at a GOP fund-raising dinner.

Romney had no presence at the straw poll and the campaign was making no effort to reach out to supporters. Only two people were spotted yesterday wearing Romney T-shirts or stickers.

“We’ve had lots of people come up and ask us where we got our T-shirts, because they wanted to find them,’’ said Jacqui Norman, a 40-year-old from Ames, who was wearing a yellow Romney shirt that was handed out four years ago. “We had a couple dozen stickers left over, so we gave those to some people.’’

It was a marked difference from his strategy four years ago, when Romney spent ample time and resources competing in Iowa. He won the straw poll, but lost the caucuses, and his team has been trying to downplay expectations in a state that has not always been friendly territory.

In addition to Romney, two other candidates - former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. - had no presence at the straw poll but their names did appear on the ballot. Gingrich got 2.3 percent of the vote, while Huntsman got 0.4 percent.

Bethany Carson, who will turn 18 before the 2012 election, came to the poll with her parents and three siblings after hearing from nearly all of the candidates in the past week. She said she was drawn to Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum, but ultimately cast her vote for Paul because “he’s just right.’’

“Isn’t it kind of strange that one little tiny state like Iowa gets all this attention?’’ asked her father, Tim Carson.

The 17-year-old responded by quoting Santorum. “The people in New Hampshire say Iowa picks the corn and New Hampshire picks the president, but Santorum says Iowa picks the field.’’

Santorum came in fourth.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.