AMES, Iowa — Here's what a celebrated fake presidential election looks like: Dozens of leather-clad motorcycle riders handing out tax policy brochures. A guy dressed as Abraham Lincoln chatting with a woman wearing a placard of a fetus. Kids in red Ron Paul T-shirts playing on a giant blowup slide.
And dozens of people in an AARP tent watching Texas Gov. Rick Perry declare his candidacy a thousand miles away.
Thousands of Iowans turned out to Iowa State University on Saturday for a mock Republican primary election, where they crowned Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann their favorite candidate and dealt a blow to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who finished a distant third, well behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The Iowa GOP's Ames straw poll has served as a milestone that helps clarify Republican presidential primaries. Saturday, though, Perry stole much of the spotlight with his announcement.
"It is up to us, to this present generation of Americans, to take a stand for freedom, to send a message to Washington that we're taking our future back from the grips of these central planners who would control our health care, who would spend our treasure, who downgrade our future and micromanage our lives,'' the 61-year-old Perry said in Charleston, S.C., at a conference organized by the RedState blog.
The crowded and unusually unsettled Republican primary has largely been a competition between front-runner Mitt Romney and other candidates vying to emerge as the main alternative to Romney, 64, who remains mistrusted by many conservatives.
Perry stands to be a leading contender for that mantle, a strong fundraiser and a social conservative who can boast of strong job creation during his tenure as governor of Texas.
"We're home to less than 10 percent of the population in America, but 40 percent of all the new jobs were created in that state," Perry said in Charleston before heading to New Hampshire. "I've cut taxes. I have delivered historic property tax reductions. I was the first governor since World War II to cut general revenue spending in our state budget."
While some Iowans at the straw poll groused that Perry should have participated in their event, he is scheduled to campaign in Iowa today. He could pose a problem for Bachmann in the Hawkeye state, appealing to the same kind of red meat conservatives that she has been reaching out to.
About 17,000 people participated in Saturday's mock election, a fundraising event for the state party that is part carnival and part political rally. Candidates bus in supporters, pay for their $30 tickets and then shower them with free food and entertainment.
"It builds energy and enthusiasm,'' said Gov. Terry Branstad, fondly recalling how the GOP's bank account swelled when Steve Forbes and George H.W. Bush campaigned fiercely in the straw poll. "This is about winning elections and recruiting candidates, not just for the presidential campaign. It's not about who won. It's about who beats expectations."
With Perry not on the ballot (though 718 people wrote in his name) and Romney and Jon Huntsman not competing for straw poll votes, the significance of Bachmann's win is dubious. What's clear is Pawlenty emerged as the big loser.
He has been lagging Romney and Bachmann in Iowa polls, and devoted extensive resources to have a strong showing here to demonstrate he's a viable candidate. Bachmann received nearly 29 percent of the vote, Paul picked up 28 percent and Pawlenty had 14 percent.
"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," Pawlenty said in a statement.
Justin Sayfie, a Republican fundraiser helping Pawlenty in Florida, discounted the damage caused to Pawlenty's campaign. Sayfie noted that Florida will be in the spotlight in late September when it holds the "Presidency 5" straw poll, the first since Perry entered the race.
"What the Iowa straw poll has done is really increase the emphasis on Presidency 5,'' he said. "It will be very interesting to see — does Michele Bachmann have more than limited regional appeal and what kind of organization can she put together in Florida? What organization can Rick Perry put together in Florida?"
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.