DES MOINES, Iowa – The new top tier of Republican presidential contenders has emerged to reset the 2012 race and raise new questions about exactly where an angry GOP base will take the party in next year’s election.
The contest is now a three-way, multi-layered match, with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann rising to challenge one another and national front-runner Mitt Romney, after the Texas governor formally declared his candidacy and the Minnesota congresswoman won the year’s biggest organizing test on Saturday.
Bachmann and Perry capitalized on their new prominence by appearing together for the first time at a party dinner in Waterloo, Iowa, late Sunday. The event opened a new and potentially defining phase of the nomination race: their battle for the social and religious conservatives who dominate early state caucuses and primaries.
Those tests, it seems increasingly clear, will be decided by an electorate fed up with Washington’s dysfunction and deeply worried that the U.S. is in decline economically and as a world power.
Party activists in Iowa, in a warning to the establishment of both major parties, forced Tim Pawlenty to abruptly quit the race Sunday, by dealing him a weak third-place finish in a non-binding straw poll Saturday.
Bachmann said Republican voters were sending “a strong message to Washington.” They “want us to get our house in order, financially speaking” and “they want someone who is going to fight for them,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Candidates from the party’s establishment wing who had been expected to challenge for the nomination have been faltering in the early going. Besides Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have failed to take off, though the latter two remain in the race.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is among Bachmann’s closest friends in Congress, noted that establishment candidates fared poorly in the straw ballot, drawing only about one in five votes cast by nearly 17,000 Iowans.
That reflected, in part, a decision by Romney and Huntsman not to compete aggressively at the event. Still, Bachmann and others, including the second-place finisher, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, are tapping a strong undercurrent of outrage over business as usual in Washington. And those taking part in the straw poll almost certainly represent the social and evangelical Christian conservatives who will be a majority at the caucuses next winter.
“The debt ceiling vote is part of the long continuum of Republicans not standing up to do the hard things necessary” to turn the country around, said King, one of the most conservative House members, criticizing GOP members who unlike himself and Bachmann agreed to raise the debt limit earlier this month. Bachmann supporters “know she will do the hard things.”
In Waterloo, both Perry and Bachmann played to outsider sentiment by defending tea party activists.
“The tea party has been the best antidote to the out-of-control spending we have seen,” Bachmann said. “The tea party has done something else for us too. They pointed out the unbelievable level of debt we have.”
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