Michele Bachmann Wins! Scenes from the Ames Straw Poll Circus

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The victorious Minnesotan's tent was thronged, Ron Paul's support proved deep as expected and Tim Pawlenty's many green T-shirts couldn't mask his soft support

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AMES, Iowa -- Women wearing sign-boards that say, "I am a person" over an image of a fetus. The ubiquitous Fair Tax people. The AARP. The National Association for Guns Rights' development director barking into a bullhorn against "Hillary Clinton's small arms treaty" and "the international destruction of the Second Amendment."

The Ames Straw Poll is a test of Republican presidential contenders' organizational strength that has a strong track record of accurately predicting the winner of the Iowa caucuses -- since 1979, that man's always been an Ames No. 1 or 2 finisher, Nate Silver reminds -- if not the GOP nomination or the presidency.

It's also a zoo, the political equivalent of the Iowa State Fair down the road in Des Moines, a festival of Bar-B-Q and T-shirts, bumper stickers and personal mobility devices. Some 700 members of the press reportedly signed up to cover it this year, and an eye-ball estimate of the conservative throngs by midday suggested to me attendance was far larger than in 2007, when 14,302 cast votes. Of course, not everyone here voted. Some just came for the scene.

Here's some of what they saw:

BACHMANN SWAMPS

"I have been to 4 #iastrawpoll events and never seen a line as long as Bachmann's," Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad's Communications Director Tim Albrecht tweeted midday.

That seemingly endless line was the subject of much speculation, snaking out from her tent and curving back around until it nearly intersected with the food line at former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's tent on the other side of the Hilton Coliseum on the campus of Iowa State University. At the line's front, once could actually slip unimpeded into her tent to see musical acts like Randy Travis in the dim air-conditioned space, where there were seats for the elderly and infirm. The hold-up at the tent's entrance wasn't to enter -- it was the thousands of people waiting to sign in and be given tickets that would allow them to cast a vote for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Ultimately, more than 6,000 of the $30 tickets to vote were distributed by her campaign, according to a source inside her tent, giving her the edge and making her the first woman to ever win the Ames Straw Poll after 4,823 of them cast ballots for her.

"Thank you everyone for being here," Bachmann said to cheers, emerging briefly from her campaign bus to shake hands and thank supporters after being declared the victor. "This is the very first step toward taking the White House in 2012 and sending the message that Barack Obama will be a one-term president." The one-term president line has become a signature in her stump speech, so much so that the coliseum audience chanted it along with her when she used it in while addressing them earlier in the day.

"We love you. Thank you so much. It's your victory," she told supporters.

It's not totally clear what happened to the rest of the distributed Bachmann tickets, some 1,200 of which did not turn into votes. What was clear was that not everyone in Bachmann's long lines was an eligible voter -- there were a slew of people from Minnesota still waiting for beef sundaes toward the end of the balloting period, for example. Among them was Pat Konkleir, 58, who came down from Blaine, Minn., in Bachmann's district to help organize straw poll activities. "We brought down a bus of 40 or 50 or so," she said.

Even so, with 16,892 ballots cast, it was highest number of votes at a straw poll since 1999.

Bachmann's Iowa faith-based coalitions organizer credited her win to the churches. "I've not ever seen anything like this," he said, strolling the floor in the press center after it was clear she'd won but before the results were announced -- and before realizing he wasn't supposed to give out his name. They were "extraordinary numbers."

"At the end of the day, the story is going to be the faith-based turnout," he said. That, and Ed Rollins, Bachmann's top political adviser, who was "really an inspiration. He told us how to do it."

But in talking to volunteers wearing orange Michele Bachmann T-shirts or wilting in line for her tent, Bachmann's social conservatism stood out as only one aspect of what appeared to be a coalition that's gathered around her.

"She's a constitutionalist," observed volunteer Paul Dayton of Boone. "She's fiscally conservative. She votes the way she says she will."

"She's firm, she's solid. I love her enthusiasm. I love everything she is," effused Shirley Ripley, 70, of Charles City, a self-described "tea party person." Pressed for specifics, she pointed to "regulations up the ying yang," "how they're trying to tell us how we can't have salt, can't have potato chips, can't have pop" and what is being taught to children.

In addition to religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives and constitutionalists (which usually means people with a libertarian stance toward federal government regulations), Bachmann appeals to conservative women. Even if they are so conservative they can't always vote for her.

Dea Davenport, 73, of Diagonal, Iowa, said she was a Bachmann supporter but hadn't cast her straw poll vote for her. "If she were a man I would have voted for her," Davenport said. "I feel like a man ought to be running the country, but she'd be my second choice."

"I think she's a good candidate, though, I really do," she sighed. "I just wish she were a man."

A STALLED PAUL

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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