AMES, Iowa -- Michele Bachmann is Rick Perry's main rival now in the battle to give Republicans a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. Tim Pawlenty's campaign is on life support. And Ron Paul's jaw-dropping straw poll result showed how much the Republican party has turned toward a robust, full-throated, small government conservatism.
Those were the lessons of Ames in 2011.
The 4,823-vote win by Rep. Bachmann (R-Minn.) was announced as Perry greeted voters in New Hampshire. The Texas governor had flown there after announcing his candidacy earlier in the day in South Carolina.
Despite not having his name on the ballot, Perry got a surprisingly high number as well: 718 votes. That beat Mitt Romney's total of 567 votes, despite the fact that the former Massachusetts governor's name was on the ballot while Perry was a write-in.
"Romney better strap it on and get on the field," Henry Barbour, an influential Republican consultant and national committee member from Mississippi, told The Huffington Post.
Members of the Romney camp in the spin room argued that the results were good for their man, in that Perry and Bachmann will fight for the hard-core evangelical and Tea Party vote in Iowa -- leaving their candidate, whose expectations are now very low here -- a chance to make a move.
But the close second place finish by Paul -- the Texas congressman finished the day with a very impressive tally of 4,671 votes -- also showed the power of the Libertarian-leaning philosophy that he espouses.
Former George W. Bush advisor Matt Dowd said the results show that the field is wide open in Iowa and elsewhere, especially since Ron Paul -- "a pro-drug, apologize-to-Iran guy who could never win the nomination" -- finished such a strong second.
"Nobody is in that strong a position, and Paul can't win. So people are going to have hungry ears to listen to Perry," said Dowd, who was Bush's pollster and a top advisor in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, was the big loser of the day. The crowd in the Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University gasped audibly when Pawlenty's tally -- only 2,293 votes -- appeared on the screen. Pawlenty will have to reassess the size and scope of his campaign, and many think this is the beginning of the end for him.
"Pawlenty's going to have a very hard time next week justifying to his contributors how he can carry on," said Scott Reed, a long time Republican strategist.
In a statement, Pawlenty said that his campaign had "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." He also said he was "just beginning and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) got 1,657 votes, former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain got 1,456 votes, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) got 385 votes, former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman got 69 votes and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich) got 35 votes.
A total of 16,892 Iowans cast ballots, making for the second highest turnout since the straw poll began in 1979. The highest number of votes was in 1999, when George W. Bush and Steve Forbes duked it out and drew a total of 23,685 votes. Bush won that contest with 7,418 votes to Steve Forbes' 4,921.
But Gentry Collins, who ran Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008 and is unaffiliated in this election, said the 1999 straw poll was different because all the frontrunner candidates were on the ballot, unlike this year.
"Lesson number one is not that Michele Bachmann got 9,000 votes. Lesson number one is that there is a huge amount of energy to get rid of this president," Collins said.
He argued that the enormous momentum among conservatives that swept Republicans to control of the House in 2010 is "still there."
Interviews with several Bachmann supporters throughout the day revealed an openness to Perry that hinged on knowing more about the Texan. Notably, none of them shut the door on the idea of voting for Perry rather than Bachmann. Over and over, the mantra repeated by Republican voters was the same: anyone but Obama.
Penny Reid, a 67-year old antiques dealer from Des Moines, voted for Bachmann and stood in a group of Bachmann supporters who spent several minutes complaining about Perry's record on immigration.
But despite her reservations, Reid said, "If [Perry] happens to be the nominee, I will vote for him."
"I will crawl over broken glass to vote for him. Because I am done!" she said, and pointed to a button on her shirt that said "Done" in an imitation of Obama's 2008 campaign logo.
Perry, who will be in Iowa on Sunday and Monday, will emphasize his record as a governor and the edge that role gives him in terms of executive experience. But as he does so, he will need to watch for the knives to come out from Romney land in the coming days.
"The question may be, 'What will Romney do to Perry?' The one thing Romney's got going for him is it's not his first rodeo," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. "He's been on the back of the bull before and it's a bruising experience, and he has the advantage of having ridden it for a while."
For the moment, Bachmann basked in her victory and attempted to position herself as a frontrunner in the race.
"I want to thank the people of Iowa for this tremendous victory," she said in a statement afterward. "The Iowa Straw Poll was a important first step in what will be a long race for the presidency."
On her way off the Iowa State campus, Bachmann stopped her big blue bus to do an interview with Mike Huckabee's Fox TV show. In a brief interview with The Huffington Post, Bachmann said that she was gratified by the victory but she quickly demurred when asked whether she had ever shared a stage with Gov. Rick Perry. "All of that is going to have to wait until tomorrow," she said with a half-frozen smile.
Howard Fineman contributed to this report.
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