AMES, Iowa — Michele Bachmann won a straw poll of Iowa Republicans on Saturday, confirming her status as the front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in the state that kicks off the real voting next winter.

Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, edged out Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota finished a distant third, a disappointment for a man who freely invested time and money in search of a strong showing to boost his flagging campaign.

Even with the hoopla of free food, music and red hot political speeches — and news media from around the world — Iowa did not have the political stage to itself and Bachmann was not the only winner Saturday.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas announced his late entry into the race Saturday at a conservative convention in South Carolina, timing apparently designed to steal some of the spotlight since he was not competing in the straw poll. Shell Suber, a Republican political consultant in South Carolina, called the move smart.

“He gets half the newspaper (coverage) tomorrow. All the other candidates in Iowa get the other half,” Suber said.

Perry’s presence was felt in Iowa as well, where he was not on the ballot but won enough write-in votes to finish ahead of four other candidates, including former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the nominal national front-runner who did not compete for votes in the Iowa event.

The final tally of the 16,000-plus straw votes:

* Bachmann, 4,823 votes, 28.55 percent

* Paul, 4,671 votes, 27.65 percent

* Pawlenty, 2,293 votes, 13.57 percent

* Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, 1,657 votes, 9.81 percent

* Business executive Herman Cain, 1,456 vote, 8.62 percent

* Perry, 718 votes, 3.62 percent, all write-ins

* Romney, 567 votes, 3.36 percent

* Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 385 votes, 2.28 percent

* Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, 69 votes, 0.41 percent

* Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., 35 votes, 0.21.

Perry, Romney, Gingrich and Huntsman did not spend money courting candidates. The others paid to rent space on the campus of Iowa State University, erect tents, hire bands and caterers, charter buses to bring in supporters, and buy $30-per-person tickets needed to vote.

The event is a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. While non-binding, the straw poll signals the early strengths and weaknesses of the candidates — perhaps driving poor finishers from the race as it heads into the fall at a new, more energetic pace.

It does not predict who will win the Iowa precinct caucuses next winter. Romney won the straw poll in 2007, only to lose the caucuses to Mike Huckabee and the nomination to John McCain.

But it does help narrow the field in the state. A poor finish can dry up contributions, drive away volunteers, and hasten the end of weak campaigns. One candidate dropped out after the 2007 straw poll; four dropped out in the weeks after the 1999 test.

Pawlenty’s distant third place finish damaged his hopes that Iowa would help propel him to the top tier of the field as the main alternative to Romney.

He vowed to press on.

“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 in a statement.

In a separate email to supporters, he also stressed that Iowa is not the only target on the campaign map.

“We are now moving onto the next phase of our campaign,” he said. “Over the coming weeks we will be visiting New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida while continuing to grow our already strong ground game in Iowa.”

Pawlenty may have been hurt by a backlash to his own attacks on Bachmann in a debate Thursday night.

Erica Smith, a graduate student in analytical chemistry at Iowa State University in Ames, said she was undecided about the straw poll until the debate, when she was turned off by Pawlenty’s barbs at Bachmann. “I lost all respect for him in the debate,” she said. “I didn’t like the way he attacked a fellow Minnesotan, instead of saying what he would do.” She ended up voting for Cain.

Stephen Waters of Knoxville, Iowa, who voted for Bachmann, also said he was turned off when Pawlenty accused Bachmann of having accomplished nothing in Washington.

“I disagree with Pawlenty when he gave her that crap in the debate,” Waters said. “She’s experienced. She has executive experience with her husband.”

Santorum’s fourth-place finish might be enough to sustain him — though he had said he needed a top finish to stay alive.

Cain’s fifth-place finish might force him to assess whether to keep campaigning.

“I do believe that I need to finish in the top three,” Cain said during a stop in Des Moines last week. “If we finish fourth or fifth, we’re going to evaluate that to determine what the implications are. So it’s not the end of the road; it’s just going to be a harder analysis that we would do to decide if we go forward.”

Gina Smith of The State in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C.


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