AMES, Iowa — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the mega-hyped presidential straw poll here, while Rep. Ron Paul showed why he's been called the Babe Ruth of these kinds of contests, finishing a close second — an outcome that's likely to give their candidacies a jolt of momentum heading into the fall campaign season.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, finished in a distant third, allowing him to survive to fight another day, though it is unclear whether he'll receive the bounce from the non-binding results that many predicted he might need to breathe new life into a campaign that's lacked buzz and struggled to gain traction in national polls.
Standing outside her campaign bus, Mrs. Bachmann said the victory was the "very first step toward taking the White House in 2012. We've just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president," she said, repeating what has become a go-to line for her on the campaign stump.
The straw poll event — part street fair and part political convention — offered the rest of the country a snapshot of how well the candidates are playing with Iowa's grassroots activists, more than 16,000 of who participated in Saturday's event.
Still, it is unclear how much weight the results hold in the nomination race as the final tally was read just a few hours after Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is running second in national polls to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, ended months of speculation by jumping into the race. Mr. Romney also muddied the results by choosing not to vie for the title of straw poll champion, after spending heavily to win the event in 2007, only to later lose the caucuses and Republican nomination. (Mr. Perry received 718 write-in votes, placing him sixth, just ahead Mr. Romney with 567 votes.)
Those lingering questions, though, didn't stop the campaigns from spinning the results in their favor.
"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," Mr. Pawlenty said in a news release. "This is a long process to restore America — we are just beginning, and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."
Jesse Benton, spokesman for the Paul campaign, said Mr. Paul's straw poll results, growing poll numbers and strong fundraising show that his message is resonating with Iowans and Americans everywhere.
"Today, Ron Paul has emerged as a top-tier candidate and is a serious contender to win the Republican nomination and the presidency," Mr. Benton said, pointing out that Mr. Paul had quadrupled his support from the 2007 straw poll.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum walked into the sprawling media area and told reporters that his fourth-place finish showed that he's gaining support, and that will continue to be the case in the coming months.
"We consider ourselves the fine wine candidate," Mr. Santorum said. "We will age very, very, well in this campaign."
The straw poll closed out a few wild days in which Iowa became the center of the political universe for the GOP presidential hopefuls. They scattered out across the state for various campaign events, took part in a debate and converged on the famous Iowa State Fair, glad-handing and snapping photos with fair-goers in an aggressive pursuit of additional support before the event here Saturday.
While voting was still under way on Saturday, the half dozen candidates participating in the event delivered their final sales pitches to thousands of activists who had gathered in the basketball arena, where the symbolic significance of the Iowa's pace in the primary process was spelled out on the sprawling banner behind them: "First in the Nation."
"I'm asking for your vote to be the next president of the United States and take your voice to Washington," Mrs. Bachmann told the crowd, after making the case that she can unify the social, fiscal and military branches of the conservative movement.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul stressed his pro-life credentials and the need to bring the troops home — messages that played well with those in attendance, many of them evangelical Christians who are expected to dominate the Iowa caucuses.
Everyone sounded off on the need for fiscal restraint and on the policies embraced by President Obama, particularly from the $830 billion stimulus package to the health care overhaul, which edged closer this week to the Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled the law's amendment as unconstitutional.
"This country is in jeopardy of losing its freedom because of one man and one bill: Obamacare," Mr. Santorum warned.
Mr. Pawlenty said the president has "no clue" and likened him to "a manure spreader in a wind."
The event started early in the morning, as cars and buses started funneling into the parking lots on the Iowa State campus.
The Bachmann campaign, for instance, welcomed supporters as they emptied off buses, directing them to a nearby tent to register with the campaign and get a free $30 ticket to the event. Her husband, Marcus, also made the rounds with the congresswoman's mother, thanking supporters for making the trek to the event.
Supporters were then sent aboard golf carts to the event and her campaign tent, which featured a performance from country music singer Randy Travis, ice cream cups and "beef sundaes," which involved mashed potatoes topped with prime rib gravy and cherry tomatoes.
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