AMES, Iowa — Tens of thousands of Iowa Republicans feasted on barbeque and red hot political rhetoric Saturday, ready to help shake up the field of candidates elbowing one another for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination.
Amid the food and drink, the Republicans were casting votes in a non-binding straw poll that was likely to signal the early strengths and weakness of the candidates — perhaps driving poor finishers from the race as it heads into the fall at a new, more energetic pace.
"We have come here to do something important...you are going to choose the next president," said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, exhorting the throngs to breathe life into his flagging campaign.
"Iowa will be the pace car, if you will," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., looking for a first place finish that would give her the status of front runner in the state that will kick off voting next winter for the nomination.
"Today's the day that Republicans in Iowa...send the message that Barack Obama's got to go," said former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, looking to catch his fellow Minnesotan in their own backyard.
Even with the hoopla — and news media from around the world — Iowa did not have the political stage to itself.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas announced his late entry into the race Saturday, timing apparently designed to steal some of the spotlight without competing in the straw poll.
"It is time to get America working again," Perry told a gathering in South Carolina organized by a conservative website. "That's why, with the support of my family, and an unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today my candidacy for President of the United States."
He joins a large field, including the nine candidates on the straw poll ballot in Iowa.
Of them, six spent time or money wooing voters at the event: Bachmann, business executive Herman Cain, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Pawlenty and Santorum.
Three more were on the ballot, but did not campaign for straw votes: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah; Rep. and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
Stephen Waters of Knoxville, Iowa, voted for Bachmann, drawn to her economic and social conservatism. He also said he was turned off by Pawlenty's attacks on her during a debate Thursday. Pawlenty accused of having accomplished little 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.
Erica Smith, a graduate student in analytical chemistry at Iowa State University in Ames, was voting for Cain.
"He's a breath of fresh air," she said. "He's a business guy. He has the most solid approach, based on sound business principles."
Undecided until the weekend, Smith also said 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."
Jim Hirschberg, a gun shop owner from Lohrville, was voting for Paul, in part because of his long support for gun rights.
"Paul is the only one with a track record of never voting for an unconstitutional bill," Hirschberg said. "I like Bachmann, but she voted for the Patriot Act, which gave the government carte blanche to spy on us without warrants."
Jim Rittgers of Johnston liked Pawlenty.
"He has executive experience," he said.
Unlike some others, he thought Pawlenty was on target in noting that Bachmann had only opposed things in Congress, never passed anything. "She's not as electable," he said. "She's more extreme. She says no compromise. There is going to have to be some compromise."
Santorum's strong opposition to abortion won over Al Kanengieter of Little Rock, Iowa. "His stand on life, it's his core issue," Kanengieter said.
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