Bachmann wins Ames straw poll; Ron Paul takes second, Pawlenty distant third

AMES, Iowa -- Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) emerged victorious Saturday in an influential straw poll of Republican voters in Ames, Iowa, cementing her status as the early frontrunner for February's caucuses in the state.

Bachmann leaned on her Iowa roots and Tea Party credentials to secure victory at the straw poll, squeaking by Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and handily dispatching former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the top spot in results.

Bachmann won with about 29 percent of the vote — 4,823 votes out of a total of 16,892 ballots cast. The turnout was up from the last straw poll's and was the second highest in the straw poll's thirty year history, even without without the participation of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. This is the latest sign Republican enthusiasm has ticked up since the last presidential election.

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Paul placed a close second, at about 28 percent and 4,671 total votes. Pawlenty came in a more distant third at about 14 percent, or 2,293 total votes.

A House member has never finished in the top two at Ames; this time, two House lawmakers finished nearly neck-and-neck at the top. Bachmann is the first woman to ever win the straw poll.

After the results were announced, Bachmann thanked cheering supporters near her campaign bus. "This is a down-payment on taking our country back," she said. "Now it's on to all 50 states."

The voters of Iowa sent a message to President Obama, Bachmann said. "He will be a one-term president."

"We’re very excited," said Alice Stewart, a spokesman for Bachmann. "It’s a very emotional night for her, she’s excited and thankful all the hard work of the supporters and volunteers paid off."

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) won about 10 percent, pizza magnate Herman Cain finished at about 9 percent, and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) drew just 35 total votes.

Murmurs of huge crowds at Bachmann's tent on the campus of Iowa State University persisted throughout the day, suggesting that momentum was with — and never waned — from the Waterloo native's campaign. While other campaigns's tents saw a stream of new sign-ins slow to a trickle as the day wore on, Bachmann volunteers continued to give tickets to Iowans up until the vote closed.

A rousing late-day speech that stressed social conservative credentials and Bachmann's ties to the Hawkeye State culminated with Bachmann beckoning undecided voters to her tent, which boasted air conditioning, seating, and performances by country star Randy Travis.

"Join me, I'm heading over to the voting booth right now," she said. "Come with me now."

While Bachmann's win will help her campaign, it was closer than advisers predicted as the polls came to a close. Bachmann handed out 6,000 tickets, but only four in five of those who took them voted for her, meaning they either skipped the vote entirely or voted for other candidates.

"People come and they get their tickets, and then they vote and they can vote as they please," said Bachmann spokesman Doug Sachtleben.

Matthew Dowd, a top adviser to President George W. Bush's reelection campaign, said Bachmann did what she needed to do but didn't prove herself the toughest candidate in the field. "I wouldn't call it a showing of overwhelming support, but it's the showing she needed. But this again says why Perry's candidacy is falling on hungry ears," he said. "She doesn't overwhelm, she doesn't set a record on percentages or numbers, and the other more credible candidates are a distant third, fourth, fifth, sixth. I think it shows the lack of a front-runner in the field and why Perry's candidacy has potential."

Pawlenty's failure to finish in the top two spots raises new questions about the core health of his campaign. The former Minnesota governor has failed to raise his poll numbers outside the single digits, and had poured most of his remaining resources into the straw poll, where he hoped a victory would infuse his campaign with new momentum. 

"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," Pawlenty said in a statement. "This is a long process to restore America -- we are just beginning and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."

Pawlenty had set expectations at a finish somewhere in the top-tier. He said repeatedly that a first-place finish wasn't essential. But even Pawlenty acknowledged Friday that a disappointing finish would force him to "reassess" his campaign, which has set itself up as more of a traditional, nationally-oriented campaign.

Republican adviser Alex Castellanos said that Pawlenty's campaign team would have to do some soul searching after the third place finish.

"Usually you end up going through the stages of death. First there’s denial, ‘Maybe we can find a way to extend this, slow and steady and grind it out. After all, McCain did that.’ Then you go through the anger, you start seeing people on the campaign pointing fingers, throwing people under the bus. Then step three, you have be realistic, and ask if you have the money to stay in the race," Castellanos said.

"That’s what’s going to be happening in Pawlenty campaign in the next 24 hours."

Pawlenty and Bachmann had sparred during Thursday's debate over electability and experience versus ideological fidelity.

"I would say governor, when you were governor in Minnesota you implemented cap and trade in our state and you praised the unconstitutional individual mandates and called for requiring all people in our state to purchase health insurance that the government would mandate," Bachmann said in response to tough rhetoric from Pawlenty. "Third, you said the era of small government was over. That sounds more like Barack Obama, if you ask me."

Paul's campaign manager Jesse Benton said that the campaign was "stoked" about the turnout for the libertarian-leaning Republican, based on the number of votes they collected.

"First or second, we don’t care. It’s tremendous success, we’re seeing a surge," he said.

Paul's showing caps off an effort of almost five years, dating back to his bid for the Republican nomination in 2007, when he started to assemble the vast grassroots organization that propelled him to a strong finish in today's straw poll.

He made a midday speech to straw poll participants that was heavy on playing up the Texas congressman's opposition to abortion rights; he also emphasized his opposition to the war in Iraq and criticism of U.S. monetary policy — views that tend to place him outside of the Republican mainstream.

Paul's finish in Ames makes his candidacy look less like a longshot, and a bit more like a realistic possibility. The straw poll is a good, if imperfect, indicator of Republicans choice to win next February's caucuses, and Paul's finish on Saturday makes it seem more plausible that he could seriously compete in those contests.

Sachtleben, Bachmann's spokesman, called her win a "strong performance" and wasn't worried by the strength of Paul's showing.

"Ron Paul, having done this before, has got name recognition from having run the whole route of the campaign before," Sachtleben said. "We've got two months, I think it's a very good showing, a strong showing and it says she's in the race."

The Ames results are ultimately tempered to a degree by the same-day announcement this afternoon by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that he is running for president in 2012. Perry launched his campaign in South Carolina, and polls suggest that he'll share headlines on Sunday morning with the victor in Ames.

Perry will be in Iowa on Sunday to introduce himself to voters in the state after not having meaningfully participated in the straw poll.

Sachtleben said Bachmann welcomed Perry to the field.

"We'll welcome [Perry] to Waterloo tomorrow, and he'll join the race and we'll see how it goes," Sachtleben said. "But Michele will stand strong on what's resonated with Iowa voters and we expect to stand strong in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and on."

Perry eclipsed the arguable frontrunner for the overall Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), in the straw poll results. Neither participated in the event, which Romney won in 2004, though Perry had unofficial supporters working on his behalf in Ames.

Perry garnered about 718 write-in votes, good enough for about 4 percent of the total tally. Romney won 567 votes, which put him at about 3 percent.

The only other candidates to not formally participate in the event, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, won 385 votes (2 percent) and 69 votes (0.4 percent), respectively. 

Michael O'Brien reported from Washington and Cameron Joseph reported from Ames, Iowa.

This story was originally published at 6:45 p.m. and has been updated.