Michele Bachmann Wins the Ames Straw Poll

The tea party congresswoman is dominating in Iowa. Does her victory on Saturday mean the end of Tim Pawlenty?

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AMES -- A strongly favored Michele Bachmann became the first Republican woman to win the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday, while sluggish, third-place finish by Tim Pawlenty in the state party's mock election threatened to hobble his presidential campaign.

The Minnesota congresswoman's bounty of 4,823 votes after only two months in the race was a testament to her infectious enthusiasm on the stump and proudly populist message at time when polls show confidence in government at all-time lows. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came in a close second with 4,671 votes. Pawlenty received 2,293 votes.

The nominal frontrunner in the race, Mitt Romney, didn't attend the straw poll and received even fewer votes than Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who launched his campaign only hours earlier in New Hampshire. Perry wasn't listed on the ballot, but 718 voters wrote in his name.

Branded by a disciplined, well-organized campaign as both a tea party icon and devout Christian, Bachmann offered a unifying, upbeat theme to the crowd at the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University.

"Whether we are tea party or social conservatives or fiscal conservatives or national security conservatives, if we stick together, and this will happen, the greatness will once again belong to the United States of America,'' she said. "As I look across this arena here in Ames, I know we are the team that can't be beat.''

Straw poll voters frequently cited her religious faith and strong convictions as the main sources of her appeal. Bachmann was one of the most outspoken members of Congress against the deal struck with President Obama to raise the debt ceiling, which allowed the government to avoid an economy-shocking default.

"I think she's tough and firm and will make things happen,'' said Andrea McDannald, an insurance agent from Des Moines.

"I appreciate her Christian faith,'' said Jeff Rekers of Winthrop. "Good moral values. We need that now,'' added his wife, Sandy, also sporting a Bachmann T-shirt.

But as Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad explained on Saturday before the results were announced, "It's not about who won. It's about who beats expectations.''

By that measure, Pawlenty fell hard, though he has been downplaying the importance of a top finish. The former governor of Minnesota has been steadily campaigning in neighboring Iowa for months and invested about $1 million in a top-flight staff and television advertising.

He was the first candidate to release a statement congratulating Bachmann, with whom he sparred repeatedly during Thursday's FOX News debate. Pawlenty now faces the daunting task of persuading donors that he's still a viable, national candidate after trailing Paul, widely viewed as more of a cult favorite than a plausible nominee.

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

Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who is not working for any of the current candidates said Pawlenty faced an "impossible choice.'' To win the straw poll, he said, would have meant stripping away his appeal to more moderate voters.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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