AMES, Iowa (AP) — The 2012 Republican presidential race lurched into a new phase Saturday as Iowans weighed in for the first time on their expanding field of presidential hopefuls while halfway across the country latecomer Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally entered the race, declaring: "America is not broken. Washington, D.C. is broken."
Together, the events were certain to reshuffle the race to face President Barack Obama. Exactly how was anybody's guess, as the front-runners sought an early validation that they have widespread appeal, with those further behind in the pack hoping to gain momentum and avoid increased questions over their viability as candidates.
Nearly a dozen Republicans are seeking the chance to challenge Obama next fall for the leadership of a country facing a recent downgrade in its credit rating, high unemployment and Wall Street tumult. And, from Iowa to South Carolina on Saturday, several of those candidates used their perches before GOP activists in two critical early voting states to castigate the Democratic incumbent and offer themselves as the answer to an ailing America.
"We know what America needs," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told thousands of Iowans gathered on the Iowa State University campus. "But unfortunately, Barack Obama has no clue. He's like a manure spreader in a windstorm."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann earned cheers from the same crowd minutes later when she declared: "We are going to make Barack Obama a one-term president."
The two were among the hopefuls with the most on the line in the Iowa Straw Poll, an every-four-years vote by thousands of GOP activists that provides clues about each candidate's level of support and campaign organization five months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the GOP primary season. The results are hardly predictive of who will win the state's winter precinct caucuses but the summer test vote can shape the race for the months ahead by providing winning candidates with a burst of momentum while taking the wind out of the campaigns of those who lose.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also were on the ballot. So were GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, though they weren't competing in the contest.
Backers for Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who made a splash Friday when she visited the Iowa State Fair, worked the crowd to try to get activists to write in their names. Any support they gain could impact the standing of candidates who have spent months trying to line up supporters to participate.
As the day began, thousands of GOP activists gathered at Iowa State University for the late-summer political festival that officially serves as a fundraiser for the state GOP. They ate barbeque and listened to live music under tents on the campus while milling with candidates who delivered speeches inside the university's coliseum, trying to sway still undecided Republican activists.
With Romney not competing, the event was a chance for some of the underdogs to try to emerge as the grassroots challenger to the former Massachusetts governor who won the straw poll four years ago. For some candidates, it was about gaining momentum with strong or surprising performances. Others hoped to prove their viability.
Bachmann, the energetic three-term congresswoman with tea party backing who has vaulted to the top of polls in Iowa, used her Saturday speech to emphasize her credentials as a native Iowan and a devout social conservative. She was looking to maintain momentum just as Perry seeks to infringe on her base of tea party and evangelical support.
"I love Iowans," she said, adding: "In Iowa, we are social conservatives and we will never be ashamed of being social conservatives."
A bit later, Bachmann danced on the stage with her husband to an Elvis Presley song before 3,000 supporters who packed into her tent; hundreds more crowded outside hoping for a glimpse.
"There is no doubt in my mind we are the team that can't be beat in 2012," Bachmann shouted from the stage.
Pawlenty, who is banking on a strong showing in the caucuses, also had a lot on the line. He's ranked low in polls despite laying the groundwork for a campaign over the past two years and has struggled to gain traction against an unexpectedly strong challenge from Bachmann in Iowa, a state critical to both of their candidacies.
He argued that he was the candidate of results, given his record as Minnesota governor. Trying to control expectations, he predicted Saturday's outcome would show his campaign's momentum.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with a following among libertarian-leaning voters, was looking for a surprise showing in hopes that it would convince Republicans that he was more mainstream than not in his second shot at the GOP nomination. He referenced Perry's entrance in the race and said he didn't anticipate many of his supporters jumping ship for what he called a "super-establishment candidate."
The crowd ate up both his speech and Cain's.
Roughly 1,200 miles away, Perry sought to overshadow the summer's marquee event in the GOP race by delivering his first speech as a full-fledged presidential candidate in Charleston, S.C.
"It is time to get America working again," Perry declared, casting himself as a job-creating Washington, D.C., outsider. "We just got to get back to the basic truths of economic success."
He first disclosed his plans in a conference call with South Carolina activists, saying: "I full well believe I'm going to win."
Then, he plunged into his campaign before an overflow crowd at the conservative RedState bloggers gathering in South Carolina, introducing himself as a small-town Texan who met his future wife at age 8 during a piano recital.
He focused heavily on Obama in his remarks, and struck a populist tone, saying: "We reject this president's unbridled fixation on taking more money out of the wallets and pocketbooks of American families and employers and giving it to a central government."
And he added: "I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on. Because a great country requires a better direction. Because a renewed nation needs a new president."
With that, he headed to New Hampshire, another important primary state, to begin his grass-roots outreach in earnest at a house party — just as the Iowa straw poll victor was to be announced.