On a day that Michele Bachmann scored an early victory in Iowa, Rick Perry scrambled the Republican presidential race by jumping in with a "tea-party"-themed attack on Washington and what he termed President Obama's "rudderless leadership."
Perry's announcement Saturday stepped on Bachmann's triumph in the Ames straw poll, the biggest moment yet in her presidential campaign and a further sign of her appeal in this early-voting state.
Perry and Bachmann will make competing appearances Sunday in Waterloo, her Iowa birthplace. Her popularity is on the rise in the Hawkeye State, but she and the Texas governor will be drawing from the same pool of religious and social conservatives expected to dominate next winter's caucuses.
In the straw poll, the Minnesota congresswoman edged Rep. Ron Paul by 152 votes, or less than a percentage point. "Our message is spreading, our support is surging, and people are taking notice," said Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton.
Tim Pawlenty was a distant third, a potentially fatal blow to his presidential hopes. The former governor of neighboring Minnesota had been counting on Iowa to boost his long-shot candidacy, but his expensive straw-vote campaign yielded fewer than half the votes Bachmann received.
"I don't know that there's a path forward for him in this race," said Gentry Collins, a former political director of the Republican National Committee, who ran Mitt Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008 but is unaligned this time.
More than 16,800 activists took part in the poll, a jump from four years ago and fresh evidence that Republicans are energized heading into next year's election.
The nonbinding poll, a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, is an early test of campaign organization and popularity. It has a history of culling weaker candidates but has been a poor predictor of success in the nomination race.
Campaigns purchased thousands of the $30 tickets required to participate in the vote.
Perry's name was excluded from the ballot because he didn't announce his candidacy in time, but backers mounted a write-in campaign. His late-starting campaign shakes up a wide-open nomination fight and poses a potentially serious threat to Romney, the presumed front-runner.
The former Massachusetts governor won the straw poll four years ago but chose to save money — and potentially prevent an embarrassing setback — by not actively competing. Romney's name was on the ballot, however, and he wound up seventh, with 567 votes, trailing the Perry write-in, which drew 718.
Perry, known for bruising campaign tactics, is aiming an outsider message at an electorate increasingly disgusted with the leaders of both parties.
Americans "don't have to accept our current circumstances. We can change them," said the 61-year-old governor, who pledged to put people back to work by spreading his home state's economic progress to the rest of the country.
His speech to a gathering of conservative bloggers in Charleston, S.C., was a blistering indictment of Obama's policies. Perry charged that the administration had "prolonged our national misery, not alleviated it." He promised to work every day to make Washington "inconsequential" in the lives of Americans.
His candidacy fills a void for a Southerner and sitting governor in the Republican field, but he may not be the last prominent figure to get in. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who created a stir at the Iowa State Fair on Friday, visited President Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, Ill., on Saturday after saying that she was still considering a run.
Perry drew a bead on national policies designed to reduce economic inequality. He singled out the progressive tax system for criticism, calling it "an injustice" that nearly half of all Americans pay no federal income tax.
"Spreading the wealth punishes success while setting America on a course for greater dependency on government," said Perry, advocating lower taxes, fewer regulations and less government spending.
Perry touched on his roots as the son of tenant farmers who grew dry-land cotton and wheat on the West Texas plains. That upbringing, he said, instilled in him values of hard work, faith and thrift.
Before even entering the race, Perry had surged in several national polls. He is a favorite of the tea party movement, with strong appeal to the social conservatives who dominate the early contests in Iowa and South Carolina. But he has also demonstrated broad appeal to Republican primary voters because of Texas' record of job growth, as well as his fiscal conservatism.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt immediately skewered Perry's economic record in Texas, stating that it is "no miracle — it's a tall tale."
"Gov. Perry allowed special interests to write their own rules, hired corporate lobbyists to oversee corporations, and cut funding for programs that would create opportunity for middle-class families," LaBolt said in a statement. "In a Republican field that has … failed to present any plan that will benefit the middle class or create the jobs America needs to win the future, Gov. Perry offers more of the same."
On Sunday, Perry will make a hastily scheduled appearance at a Blackhawk County GOP dinner in Waterloo. Bachmann shuffled her schedule so she could also speak at the event.
Perry's arrival in Iowa, one day after the biggest event of the year for state Republicans, will mark the start of his effort to smooth things over with party activists infuriated by his decision to overshadow their efforts.