WATERLOO, Iowa — It's a new race for Republicans as they head towards fall seeking a 2012 presidential nominee to challenge President Barack Obama.
They have a new top tier of choices: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. And they remain open to any of them, having refused to rally behind any one person.
Bachmann emerged from a weekend straw poll the front-runner in Iowa, the state that will kick off the voting next winter.
But she found herself instantly facing a new challenge from Perry, who jumped into the race Saturday and on Sunday was in Bachmann's Iowa hometown to pitch his message of jobs and social conservatism.
At the same time, Romney faced questions about whether he can afford to wait for the campaign to arrive in New Hampshire, where's he's strong, or should begin competing in the conservative heartland, where he's made only a token effort so far.
"Republicans," said Iowa political analyst Dennis Goldford, "still haven't found their champion."
The last Republican to win the White House was much stronger at this point in his own party than any of the contenders now.
Twelve years ago, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush roared into Iowa, taking 7,418 votes in a surging turnout for the straw poll, or 31.3 percent. He was 10 points ahead of his nearest competitor, businessman Steve Forbes.
By comparison, Bachmann won 4,823 votes, 28.6 percent of a much smaller turnout. She barely edged out Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who won 4,671 votes, or 27.7 percent.
Her victory notwithstanding, Bachmann raced Sunday to Waterloo to defend the hometown where she launched her campaign just weeks ago.
Just six weeks ago, none of the announced candidates nor Perry would commit to speak at Black Hawk County Republican Party Lincoln Day fund raising dinner. But then they all wanted to be there.
Bachmann's campaign at first wouldn't commit, saying she didn't want to be locked into coming if she had lost the straw poll the day before.
"They said she wanted to come if she wins. We said no, commit to it or nothing," said Black Hawk County Republican Party Chairman Mac McDonald.
As Perry this week firmed up his plan to jump into the Republican race, he jumped at the chance to upstage Bachmann in her home. "Perry was the first to respond, McDonald said. "He said yes on Tuesday"
Bachmann soon followed suit. The dinner would be in the same ballroom where she held a reception the night before she launched her campaign.
"Bachmann's a fighter. She can energize a crowd," McDonald said. .
But her appeal isn't the same as Perry's, the county chairman said. "Bachmann's never run anything. A small business isn't the same as running a state government. The governors, they've run things."
Perry signaled that he's going to fight for Iowa, arriving early at the Sunday dinner to shake hands, and scheduling stops in six towns over two days.
Romney, who's led national polls and leads comfortably in New Hampshire, now will face pressure to compete in Iowa.
He did not compete in the straw poll and has barely campaigned in the state. But he risks looking like a weak candidate who cannot compete everywhere — something that would bode ill for his general election chances, Republicans said Sunday. And his strategy of largely skipping the state could be complicated by Perry's potential appeal to the Christian conservatives who dominate Iowa, and then the anti-tax, economic conservatives prevalent in New Hampshire.
"If Perry wins Iowa and South Carolina, Romney's on the ropes. He has to compete here," said McDonald.
"Look what happened to Rudy Guiliani, never got off the ground because he didn't compete in Iowa," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad warned Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "It's important for Romney to get here and compete. If he gets blown out in Iowa, I think he's in real trouble."
Meanwhile, one candidate, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, dropped out of the race Sunday, after a disappointing third place finish in the straw poll threatened to dry up contributions to his already faltering campaign.
"We had some success raising money, but we needed to continue that, and Ames was a benchmark for that," he said. "And if we didn't do well in Ames, we weren't going to have the fuel to keep the car going down the road."
Often criticized as boring, particularly when up against the charismatic Bachmann, Pawlenty said only that his pitch fell flat.
"What I brought forward I thought was a rational, established, credible, strong record of results, based on experience governing, a two-term governor of a blue state," he said. "But I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different."
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