The Republicans settled their Minnesota sweepstakes over the weekend, but the argument over Iowa goes on.
The small Midwestern state once again claimed the national spotlight for itself and dominated the news media. But whether the latest round of fundraising and polling there amounts to a real watershed for the Republican field is highly debatable.
It is likely the entry into the field of Texas Gov. Rick Perry this weekend, a deed carried out in the rival early-voting state of South Carolina, will look more important in hindsight.
Of course, with her decisive victory over former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the Ames straw poll, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) established herself as the woman to beat in the Iowa caucuses next winter -– the event that begins the 2012 nominating process. Surely she will be the most formidable candidate who was born in Iowa and now lives in a neighboring state.
(If you think her Iowa connection less than important, go back and count the number of times Bachmann mentioned it in her brief speech at the Ames event.)
But there was little surprise in any of this. Bachmann has been running laps around the faltering Pawlenty campaign since announcing her candidacy June 13. That was also the night Pawlenty dealt his own prospects a fatal blow in a debate in New Hampshire.
Three times Pawlenty was asked to repeat his critique of front-runner Mitt Romney's health care law in Massachusetts, which Pawlenty had been deriding as "Obamneycare." After his third demurral, you could hear the air escaping his dirigible at every seam. He was falling back just as Bachmann strode forward.
If there was any real eyebrow raising in Ames this weekend it was caused by another House Republican, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The three-time candidate who favors legalizing drugs and bringing all U.S. troops home from everywhere, turned out enough of his fan base to finish a close second. A very close second: less than one percentage point behind.
Give the man that one extra percentage point and the accounts being written about this weekend would have been far different. And Iowa could boast of shaking up the contest for real (if it still felt so inclined).
But if Bachmann escaped losing her headlines to one Texan, she still had to share them with another. And that imposition will matter more in the months ahed.
The record-setting Perry, governor of Texas longer than anyone in history, is now officially in and going straight at Bachmann's voters. We have heard these voters described many ways, and they are already being labeled "Tea-vangelists" for their roots in both Tea Party fiscal revolt and religion-based social conservatism.
Whatever one calls them, they are the main source of heat and fuel in the Republican resurgence that began in 2009. And they are demanding more than just a voice in the 2012 presidential cacophony. They want to name the winner, and probably the running mate too.
This is the movement Pawlenty tried to harness by switching his conventional-cum-moderate persona for that of a populist firebrand. It didn't work, largely because his in-state rival Bachmann is so much more convincing in the role. Perry is more convincing too, and he has assets Bachmann does not.
Principally, Perry has Texas. And that means the most populous red state in the nation and the support of its enormously lucrative and politically potent oil and gas industry. He can point to an economy far better and more robust than the rest of the country has seen in some time. And he combines the business orientation Romney personifies with the religious fervor now propelling Bachmann.
The people who follow presidential campaigns are always looking for a two-person race to promote, and the 2012 renewal has been dull so far because no other contestant seemed to be in Romney's weight class. That's why so many were so eager to overmatch Pawlenty against him.
If Perry fulfills expectations in fundraising and polling in the next few months, he will automatically slide into the Main Challenger role. To get there, he will need to supplant Bachmann (much as she supplanted Pawlenty). And that will leave the Ames straw poll looking rather pallid well before the actual delegate-choosing events begin early in 2012.
And by the way, the other candidates betting heavily on this weekend's event in Ames –- including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and some others facing even longer odds — came away empty handed. It is hard to see what any of them gained other than another round of speaking opportunities and more face time on C-SPAN.