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World & Nation

Top tier emerges as GOP nomination race enters a defining phase

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, multilayered match, with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann rising to challenge each other 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.

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 head-to-head 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.

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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 straw poll Saturday that boosted Bachmann to the head of the field in the leadoff caucus state.

Pawlenty said on ABC’s “This Week” that voters were “looking for something different” from what he was offering as “a rational, established” two-term Minnesota governor with a “strong record of results, based on experience governing.” Other Republicans said his low-key, guy-next-door image was no match for Bachmann’s crowd-pleasing fire.

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.

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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 1 in 5 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 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.”

Perry, making his first stop in Iowa, faulted those who say the tea party is “angry.”

“We’re indignant at the arrogance and audacity this administration is showing about the values that are important to the people of America. We’re indignant about a government that borrows trillions of dollars because they don’t have the courage to say no,” he told Republicans gathered for a party fundraiser.

Neither candidate addressed the other; Bachmann arrived after Perry spoke, and when she concluded her speech Perry quickly left the building without shaking her hand.

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At a campaign stop earlier Sunday in Manchester, N.H., Perry said that he was “one of those citizens in this country that is very frustrated with a federal government that does not listen.”

The governor also took a swipe at Romney, telling New Hampshire’s largest TV station that Texas’ record of job growth under his leadership “doesn’t need any propping up,” an allusion to Massachusetts’ low rate of job creation while Romney was governor.

That jab was an early illustration of Perry’s intention to challenge Romney and Bachmann at the same time. If he succeeds, he could be well-positioned to build a substantial edge once the primaries begin, albeit at the risk of coming under a dual assault.

Perry’s entry poses a difficult challenge for Romney, who has been skirting Iowa, where he lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 despite an expensive, all-out effort.

The Texas governor will fill the void left by Pawlenty for “a serious candidate who could actually become president,” said Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican.

Perry will likely have the financial resources that Pawlenty lacked, which finally drove him from the race, as well as the potential to build support among both evangelical Christians and fiscal conservatives.

Bachmann, alternately, could get the jump on the field if she can hold off Perry and transfer her success in Iowa to other early-voting states, especially South Carolina and Florida.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy, a former Romney aide, said the Massachusetts governor faced “a tough call” in Iowa. Murphy said Romney might be able to eke out a caucus win if conservatives divide their votes among Bachmann, Perry and others. Or the populist anger spurred by economic distress could spread from activist events into the presidential primaries, with unpredictable results.

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“Are we going to nominate our own McGovern, or are we going to nominate somebody who can win a general election?” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “That’s unclear.”

paul.west@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.


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