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GOP race narrowing, but there's still no front runner

WATERLOO, Iowa — It's a new race for Republicans as they head towards fall seeking a 2012 presidential nominee to challenge President Barack Obama.

They have a new top tier of choices: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. And in an unusually open race for a party prone to nominating the next in line, they remain open to any of them, having refused to rally behind any one person.

"Republicans," said Iowa political analyst Dennis Goldford, "still haven't found their champion."

The last Republican to win the White House was much stronger at this point in his own party than any of the contenders now.

Twelve years ago, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush roared into Iowa, taking 7,418 votes in a surging turnout for the straw poll, or 31.3 percent. He was 10 points ahead of his nearest competitor, businessman Steve Forbes.

By comparison, Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, won 4,823 votes, 28.6 percent of a much smaller turnout. She barely edged out Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who won 4,671 votes, or 27.7 percent.

But even as one Iowa rival dropped out of the race - former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota - she found a far more formidable challenger invading her hometown of Waterloo Sunday evening.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas jumped at an invitation to a country Republican dinner to pitch his message of jobs and social conservatism.

"If we don't get a president of the United States who gets this country working, we are in trouble...I've got a track record of doing that," Perry told the crowd at the Black Hawk County Republican Party's Lincoln Day fundraiser. "Since 2009, 40 percent of all the jobs created in America were created in the state of Texas."

"He's excellent. He's my top choice," said Mike Peters, a Republican from Waterloo. "He's both a social and economic conservative. And he has experience as a governor who created jobs. He may have the best chance to beat Obama."

A few minutes later, Bachmann addressed the same crowd.

"We are a movement...of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives," Bachmann said. "We will take the country back, I know that it’s going to happen."

Neither Bachmann nor Perry mentioned the other.

Perry's appearance at the dinner underscored how quickly the contest has changed.

Just six weeks ago, none of the announced candidates would commit to speak at dinner.

Bachmann's campaign at first wouldn't commit, saying she didn't want to be locked into coming if she had lost the straw poll the day before.

"They said she wanted to come if she wins. We said no, commit to it or nothing," said Black Hawk County Republican Party Chairman Mac McDonald.

As Perry this week firmed up his plan to jump into the Republican race, he grabbed the chance to upstage Bachmann in her home. "Perry was the first to respond, McDonald said. "He said yes on Tuesday"

Bachmann followed suit, agreeing on Thursday to appear. Where Perry arrived two hours early to mingle and shake hands, as did former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Bachmann swept in late, just before speaking.

"Bachmann's a fighter. She can energize a crowd," McDonald said. .

But her appeal isn't the same as Perry's, the county chairman said. "Bachmann's never run anything. A small business isn't the same as running a state government. The governors, they've run things."

Perry signaled that he's going to fight for Iowa, arriving early at the Sunday dinner to shake hands, and scheduling stops in six towns over two days.

Romney, who's led national polls and leads comfortably in New Hampshire, now will face pressure to compete in Iowa.

He did not compete in the straw poll and has barely campaigned in the state. But he risks looking like a weak candidate who cannot compete everywhere — something that would bode ill for his general election chances, Republicans said Sunday.

And his strategy of largely skipping the state could be complicated by Perry's potential appeal to the Christian conservatives who dominate Iowa, and then the anti-tax, economic conservatives prevalent in New Hampshire.

"If Perry wins Iowa and South Carolina, Romney's on the ropes. He has to compete here," said McDonald.

"Look what happened to Rudy Guiliani, never got off the ground because he didn't compete in Iowa," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad warned Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "It's important for Romney to get here and compete. If he gets blown out in Iowa, I think he's in real trouble."

Meanwhile, Pawlenty dropped out of the race Sunday, after a disappointing third place finish in the straw poll threatened to dry up contributions to his already faltering campaign.

"We had some success raising money, but we needed to continue that, and Ames was a benchmark for that," he said. "And if we didn't do well in Ames, we weren't going to have the fuel to keep the car going down the road."

Often criticized as boring, particularly when up against the charismatic Bachmann, Pawlenty said only that his pitch fell flat.

"What I brought forward I thought was a rational, established, credible, strong record of results, based on experience governing, a two-term governor of a blue state," he said. "But I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different."

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