Ames, Iowa – Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll Saturday, affirming her status as a top-tier candidate in the Republican race to challenge President Obama in 2012.
Bachmann received 28 percent of the nearly 17,000 votes cast. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was close behind her with 27 percent. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty came in a distant third with 13 percent of the vote, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 9 percent and businessman Herman Cain with 8 percent.
"We just sent a message that Obama will be a one-term president," Bachmann told her cheering supporters outside of her bus. Bachmann cast her victory as a "down payment on taking our country back."
"We just crossed a very important hurdle, but it's the first one," she said to Mike Huckabee. "This is a wonderful result today and we couldn't be more grateful to the people of Iowa."
The daylong political festival was the first indication of how these Republicans are faring with the GOP base. Nine candidates were on the ballot, and voting ran for six hours on the campus of Iowa State University.
Most of the buzz had revolved around Bachmann, whose supporters were a huge presence at the outdoor circus before the votes were cast.
But Pawlenty arguably had the most on the line as his aides had said that if he didn't finish at least second or third, they would have to evaluate whether he can move forward.
It remains to be seen how the third-place finish would affect Pawlenty's campaign. Poor showings usually force some candidates, mostly those who are not well-known and are struggling to raise money, to abandon their bids, and that could happen this year, too.
But Pawlenty, whose heated exchanges with Bachmann was the highlight of Thursday's debate in Iowa, immediately congratulated his Minnesota rival.
"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. "This is a long process to restore America -- we are just beginning and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."
Paul, who has had the most devout and loyal following at the event this year, got the surprise showing he was looking for in hopes that it would convince Republicans that he was more mainstream than not in his second shot at the GOP nomination.
"Dr. Paul is surging in this race, and today's results show the strength of his grassroots support and top notch organization," Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton said. "These straw poll results, our growing poll numbers and our strong fundraising shows that our message is resonating with Iowans and Americans everywhere."
In the last few weeks, Santorum has been making noise with a family tour of the entire state of Iowa. And having barely registered in public polls for months, he got fourth-place finish he was seeking.
Two major Republican players -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- are not on the ballot but their supporters were still trying to make a splash for them at the straw poll because for the first time, Iowans were able to submit write-in votes.
Perry, who announced his candidacy earlier Saturday, came in sixth place with 3.6 percent of the vote, ahead of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, all of whom didn't compete in the contest.
The poll results are nonbinding, amount to a popularity contest and offer candidates a chance to test their get-out-the-vote organizations.
Those willing to shell out $30 for a ticket were eligible to vote, though some campaigns paid for tickets they distributed to backers. Some also organized bus caravans to bring backers to the event. Turnout in the past has ranged from 14,000 to 23,000.
Bachmann's victory may provide a road map for the Iowa campaign heading into the caucuses that are just four months away. But the straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the winner of that contest.
In 2008, Romney won the straw poll, but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but dropped from the race soon after. McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn't compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.