Updated, 9:03 a.m.
Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed victory at Saturday’s Ames straw poll in Iowa, edging out second-place finisher Ron Paul for the symbolic early-state trophy and crushing third-place finisher Tim Pawlenty, who was heavily invested in the event, by more than a 2-to-1 margin. But for all its fanfare, the Ames straw poll was not the biggest news of the day.
The fairgrounds were roaring along in full force on Saturday until about 1 p.m., when a tornado from Texas picked up the entire Hilton Colosseum here and threw it about 200 feet down the road, instantly changing everything — Rick Perry announced he is running for President.
Ames almost felt like yesterday’s news. And even some seasoned Iowa GOP politicos were quietly asking me if Perry’s entry into the race and front-runner Mitt Romney’s decision to skip the straw poll — he still managed to receive 567 votes — signify the death of the legendary campaign tradition. It’s premature to say that, but it is clear the race has instantly changed. Michele Bachmann, who commanded an impressive 4823 votes, now faces serious competition in the caucus. Perry, having been a declared candidate for mere hours and excluded from the ballot, got 718 write-in votes.
With Perry in the race, there is another fiery conservative candidate drenched with Tea Party hot sauce now on the Iowa political menu. Unless the Perry for President campaign blows up on the launch pad — which is indeed possible when a candidate runs on the national stage for the first time — the Texan will give Bachmann a run for her money in Iowa.
Of course, it’s Mitt Romney who now faces a potential nightmare. While a Bachmann victory in the Iowa caucuses would give Romney a two-way race he would almost certainly win, a Perry win there would leave him with a much steeper path to nomination. While Romney should be able to fend off Perry in the famously Texan-doubting state of New Hampshire, the race could be close and Romney might fail to meet sky-high expectations. Romney could also lose moderate Granite State voters to Jon Huntsman, while trying to fight off Perry on the right. If Perry can place a strong second, the race will then move to Perry country in South Carolina. The mega-state of Florida, another place where Perry could do very well, would come after that. In short, if Perry wins Iowa, Romney is in for a long slog.
Anyone who watched Rick Perry destroy Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas gubernatorial primary last year should have no illusions; he knows how to win a GOP primary. Whether Perry can win a general election or not is another matter. Most senior GOP strategists have major concerns about running a twangy Christian conservative Texan as the party’s nominee against even a weakened Barack Obama. Count me among them.
Though Perry certainly overshadowed Saruday’s straw poll results, Ames was not without its casualties. That crackling sound you could hear between thundering bouts of applause for Bachmann and Paul, who finished with 4671 votes, was an iceberg ripping through the hull of Tim Pawlenty for President. The former Minnesota Governor invested big in Iowa, but that wasn’t enough to win the hard core activist votes at Ames. On Sunday, Pawlenty told ABC News he would be ending his campaign.
As one of the strongest potential candidates for the general election, Pawlenty faced an impossible task in trying to win the hearts of Ames. He couldn’t circle the square. After all his efforts, Pawlenty’s 2293 votes at Ames offer a troubling warning sign to Republicans who hope to win Republican presidential primaries as a general election threat, not just have a good time chucking large piles of red meat.
Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant.