AMES, Iowa — Thousands of Iowa Republicans munched on barbecue and mingled with presidential hopefuls on a college campus where they began voting Saturday in the first test to see how the candidates trying to unseat President Barack Obama are faring with the GOP base.
Results from the straw poll in this leadoff caucus state were due out just hours after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race.
“I full well believe I’m going to win,” Perry told South Carolina voters on a conference call about an hour before he kicked off the campaign with a speech in Charleston.
Under bright sunshine and mild weather, activists strolled through tents erected by the campaigns for live music and roamed the campus of Iowa State University. Voting started at 11 a.m. and ran until 5 p.m.
Those willing to shell out $30 for a ticket were eligible to vote, though some campaigns paid for tickets they distributed to backers.
The poll results are nonbinding, amount to a popularity contest and offer candidates a chance to test their get-out-the-vote organizations. Nonetheless, the outcome probably will provide a road map for the Iowa campaign heading into the caucuses that are just four months away.
To the state party chairman, Matt Strawn, the poll “is the first measurable proving ground” for the field.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads national polls and many states’ surveys for the chance to challenge Obama next fall. But there is no shortage of rivals looking to emerge as the top alternative to Romney, who lost the nomination in 2008 to Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The candidates with the most to lose in the poll were two Minnesotans competing to fill that role: Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
They clashed during Thursday’s debate in Ames, when Bachmann said Pawlenty “sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me” and Pawlenty accused her of having “a record of misstating and making false statements.”
Pawlenty, languishing in early Iowa polls, hoped a victory would prove he’s a strong player in the race. Bachmann wanted to build on momentum she’s enjoyed since entering the race this summer.
“For some people, this is make or break,” Tea Party activist Ryan Rhodes said.
Nine candidates were on the ballot. Romney won the straw poll four years ago but isn’t actively competing this time.