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Perry, Bachmann Share Billing At Iowa Fundraiser

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

The dynamics of the Republican race for president changed dramatically over the weekend, boosting some political fortunes and dashing others. After the Iowa straw poll crowned Michele Bachmann the winner and gave Ron Paul a close second, Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race after coming in a distant third.

And a potentially formidable new competitor joined the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry managed to take back some of the spotlight from afar by announcing his candidacy. Bachmann and Perry each define themselves as social and fiscal conservatives. As such, they compete for the same voters' attention. And last night in Waterloo, Iowa, their paths crossed for the first time.

NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA: The event was the Black Hawk County Republican Dinner. This would be Rick Perry's very first visit to Iowa as a candidate. Adding to the buzz, he shared top billing with Michele Bachmann.

Perry arrived first and was immediately swarmed as he walked the few steps from his SUV to the doorway.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Waterloo.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): Yeah, it's good to be here, sir. Thank you very much.

Unidentified Man: Thank you. Yes, sir.

GONYEA: He made his way into the ballroom, signing posters and ticket stubs and posing for pictures. The loudspeakers blasted a song to mark his arrival.

(Soundbite of song, "Deep in the Heart of Texas")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Deep in the heart of Texas.

GONYEA: But despite the enthusiastic greeting, there was also a dose of skepticism and sensitivity over the fact that the governor skipped many months of tough campaigning in Iowa leading up to and including Saturday's straw poll.

Thirty-year-old Mike Robinson is from Cedar Falls.

Mr. MIKE ROBINSON: First time I've ever seen him.

GONYEA: Okay. First impression. Size him up.

Mr. ROBINSON: I'd say that was a Texas-sized entourage, for sure, a lot of people coming in with him. It's good to see him finally making it to the state.

GONYEA: I notice you didn't say anything about his politics or his prospects or anything at this point.

Mr. ROBINSON: To me, he really hasn't sold himself to anyone besides Texas. So it's time to hear his message.

GONYEA: You're saying he's got a lot to prove.

Mr. ROBINSON: Absolutely.

GONYEA: Robinson voted for Michele Bachmann in the straw poll, but calls himself undecided as far as next year's Iowa Caucuses go.

But near the back of the room, 46-year-old Jack Walsh of Spirit Lake sat with his 18-year-old daughter. Both wore Rick Perry T-shirts. He said Perry has the best chance of beating President Obama.

Mr. JACK WALSH: One thing I've been impressed recently, some of the advertisements by Perry, he is socially and fiscally conservative. However, his messaging is about jobs.

GONYEA: In his speech, Perry stuck to that message, while urging the party to avoid division.

Gov. PERRY: And making sure that we have a candidate that can beat Barack Obama in November is the most important thing we can do.

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. PERRY: And it's got to be somebody that understands and knows how, and has had job creation experience in their background.

GONYEA: That's Perry highlighting his executive experience as governor, something Congresswoman Michele Bachmann can't claim. Bachmann didn't arrive at the event until after Perry finished. She, too, made a big entrance.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Hi, everybody. It's great to see you.

GONYEA: In her speech, Bachmann said Republicans need to choose a nominee who will truly represent conservatives. That seemed a jab at national frontrunner Mitt Romney. She promised she can win the White House with help from her coalition of Tea Party and social conservatives.

Rep. BACHMANN: They want to make sure that they have a champion, a fighter, somebody who is going to stand up and have guts, and stand up in Washington, D.C., and stand for what we believe in. They want someone who means what they say and say what they mean, and that's what I've been doing in Washington.

GONYEA: As Bachmann spoke, Perry sat at a table in the audience, sizing up his competition. There was one other candidate on the bill in Waterloo last night: former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who finished in fourth place in the Ames Straw Poll. Unlike Tim Pawlenty, Santorum says he's not dropping out. As he arrived at the hall, he described his campaign as the Little Engine that Could.

Mr. RICK SANTORUM (Former Republican Senator, Pennsylvania): Little Engine that Could. Lots of shiny engines always going by. So you just hitch it up and keep going.

GONYEA: The campaign certainly keeps going. Mitt Romney remains the national frontrunner, but the Ames Straw Poll did give Bachmann and second place finisher Ron Paul big boosts. And Rick Perry's presence gives them all something new to worry about.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Waterloo Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.