WATERLOO, Iowa – U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry competed for the hearts and minds of conservative Iowa voters, focusing on jobs at the same event event in what might be a preview of the months ahead in the Republican race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama.
Perry and Bachmann were vying for attention Sunday as their campaign schedules put them at the same county Republican Party event in Waterloo, Iowa.
Perry announced his candidacy Saturday in South Carolina, just hours before Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, a key early test of candidates' level of support in the Midwestern state whose February caucuses kick off the presidential nomination season.
Both candidates have enjoyed strong support from evangelical Christians and supporters of the small government, low tax tea party movement, and are now making big plays for those two important constituencies in Iowa. They are battling to emerge as the top alternative from the party's most conservative wing to the perceived front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"I happen to think the biggest issue facing this country is that we are facing economic turmoil, and if we don't have a president that doesn't get this country working, we're in trouble," Perry told about 300 Republicans in a Waterloo ballrooom. "And I've got a track record."
Bachmann touted her experience running her family's small business in Minnesota.
"We started our own successful small company," she told reporters. "We know how to build from scratch, putting capital together and starting a business from scratch and building it up so that we can actually offer jobs to people."
Perry was making his first campaign visit to Iowa since announcing his candidacy Saturday in Charleston, South Carolina, in a speech that emphasized his economic credentials and Texas' job growth, as well as his conservative stances on social issues and his faith.
The chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Perry is an establishment candidate who could be an attractive candidate for economic conservatives in this leadoff caucus state who are looking for a candidate to rally around. As the longest-serving governor of the second-largest U.S. state, he has the executive experience that Bachmann, a three-term Minnesota congresswoman, lacks.
Perry can go head-to-head with Romney on the issue of job creation, a key issue in the upcoming campaign. Through three terms as Texas governor, Perry has overseen significant job growth in his state while working to keep taxes low. Romney has touted his extensive background as a businessman to persuade voters he can turn the economy around.
But enthusiasm for Romney, and his strong economic message has been muted. As Massachusetts governor, Romney supported gay and abortion rights and implemented a health care reform plan that Obama used as a model for legislation that Republicans loathe. Evangelicals also look askance at Romney's Mormon faith.
Perry has spent the past few weeks assembling a national finance team supporters say could rival Obama's. The president is on track to match or exceed the record-breaking $750 million he raised in 2008.
Bachmann, who has risen in Iowa polls since entering the race this summer, was reveling in her first-place finish in the test vote Saturday on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames that proved her campaign has the organizational skills and volunteer network needed to compete strongly in the state's caucuses.
"We see this as just the very first step in a very long race," Bachmann said on NBC television's "Meet the Press. "There's a lot of work to be done."
A candidate backed largely by the grass-roots, she appeared on all the Sunday morning TV news programs as she worked to broaden her appeal and challenge rivals more linked to the establishment.
In the straw poll, Bachmann edged past libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul to win the vote -- getting 4,823 votes, or 29 percent, to 4,671, or 28 percent, for Paul out of nearly 17,000 cast. But she trounced home-state rival Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who had cast himself as an electable establishment choice but ended up drawing 2,293 votes, or 14 percent. Romney did not actively compete in the straw poll.
On Sunday, Pawlenty quit the race.
"I wish it would have been different. But obviously the pathway forward for me doesn't really exist so we are going to end the campaign," Pawlenty said on ABC television's "This Week" from Iowa shortly after disclosing his plans in a private conference call with supporters.
The low-key Midwesterner and two-term Minnesota governor had struggled to gain traction in Iowa, a state he had said he must win and never caught fire nationally with a Republican electorate seemingly craving a more charismatic challenger to go up against Obama.
His exit means there's now an available contingent of top Republican staff and consultants, including a former state party chairman, former advisers to President George W. Bush and senior advisers to Mike Huckabee's winning 2008 caucus campaign, including Sarah Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor's daughter. Top state legislators who had signed on to Pawlenty's camp also now are free to rally behind other candidates.
It's not yet clear the size of the electorate Pawlenty frees up. But it's certain both Bachmann and Perry will try to go after his voters. Pawlenty didn't immediately endorse a candidate.
"I wish him well," Bachmann said, quick to praise Pawlenty, perhaps mindful of the need to broaden her appeal and reach his backers. "He brought a really important voice into the race and I am grateful that he was in. He was really a very good competitor."
Iowa is Bachmann's birthplace, a point she has stressed everywhere while campaigning for the leadoff caucuses, and she wasn't willing to cede the spotlight to Perry. She changed her plans and decided to attend after Perry announced that he would make his Iowa debut at the event.
Perry's candidacy will also be a test of whether Americans are ready to elect as president another Texas governor, so soon after former President George W. Bush left office with record low approval ratings.
With his Republican opponents focusing their attention on Iowa, Obama was to begin a three-day bus tour on Monday of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, three Midwestern states critical for his re-election.