WATERLOO, Iowa — The Republican battle over the 2012 Iowa caucuses will probably look something like the Electric Park Ballroom on Sunday evening.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry comfortably worked the crowd on his maiden voyage to Iowa as a presidential candidate. A few minutes later, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) appealed to her native town, stressing her longtime roots in northeast Iowa.
One day after thousands of Republican activists voted in the Ames straw poll, two of the most talked-about Republican presidential candidates addressed the Black Hawk County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner. While the frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, will sit out Iowa for now, both Bachmann and Perry made it clear Sunday evening that they plan to play hard for Hawkeye State caucus-goers.
Or as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) described the dueling speeches Saturday, “That’s like the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral after the straw poll.”
Perry, who made his candidacy official Saturday, entered the wooden-floored ballroom as “Deep in the Heart of Texas” played on the loudspeaker. Surrounded by bodyguards and a horde of cameras, Perry immediately started glad-handing before picking a seat at a table near the front of the room.
“Are we going to take the reins of our futures over the next 15 months?” Perry asked the crowd. “We may have issues that separate us, but bringing those diverse roots together and making sure we have a candidate that can beat Barack Obama next November is the most important thing.”
The Texas governor emphasized his small-town roots, talking about working on his father’s farm and earning a gold star with the local 4-H Club chapter. He retold his story of how it took his wife eight years to agree to marry him, using it as a metaphor for his relatively late entrance in the presidential race.
“It takes me a while to get into something, like this presidential race. But when I’m in, I’m in all the way,” Perry called out to cheers from the audience.
Black Hawk County Republicans gave Perry a vigorous welcome, and they appeared more energized listening to his speech than to their native daughter’s words. The two presidential candidates never shared the stage.
At the top of her remarks, Bachmann proudly displayed that day’s copy of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier to the crowd. The front page showed her photo under the headline, “Bachmann wins GOP straw poll.”
“I needed to come home and say thank you to all of you and what you have done,” Bachmann said. “I was born here in Waterloo, Iowa, and here in Black Hawk County, my family goes back 100 years in northeast Iowa.”
After her speech, Bachmann offered an apple pie from the local Machine Shed restaurant to the “oldest Republican mom” in the room. She hand-delivered the pie to the 100-year-old winner before tossing out her own campaign swag to the crowd.
GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) was the first to address the crowd Sunday. Perry exited the room immediately after Bachmann’s speech, while the Congresswoman stuck around to sign campaign paraphernalia.
Just a week ago, the Black Hawk County Republican Party expected its fourth annual dinner to be a quiet, run-of-the-mill fundraiser.
But that all changed when Perry announced he was coming to town. An official with the local Republican Party, Judd Saul, said the group invited Bachmann to speak at the dinner six weeks ago, but she only accepted the invitation 36 hours after Perry confirmed his attendance.
Regardless, 270 buffet dinner tickets sold out within days.
Perry’s impromptu seatmates, Jim and Cecelia Mudd, did not expect to sit next to the hottest commodity in national Republican politics that evening.
“This is our maiden voyage with him. He was just being very courteous and nice,” Jim Mudd said. “Total surprise. If I had known, I would have worn a tie.”