Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) won the Ames straw poll on Saturday, sending a message to other GOP presidential contenders that she is a serious threat.

So it begins. Two months after kicking off her presidential campaign in her reclaimed Iowa hometown, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) scored a resounding victory in the Ames Straw Poll, a non-binding event that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished just 150 votes back in second place (out of nearly 17,000 cast), but it was Bachmann's drubbing of her fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty that immediately stands out—and raises questions about whether there's still room in the race for the formerly mulleted, former governor of Minnesota.

While today's event is technically meaningless—the votes won't count until the caucuses are held in December—it was the first serious test of the candidates' appeal and manpower. You could think of Ames as a sort of highly concentrated get-out-the-vote contest: The Bachmann and Pawlenty campaigns both bused in supporters from as far away as Davenport on the Illinois border and covered the $30/per ticket fee for supporters to cast their votes. Pawlenty spent the past week drumming up support across the state, but Bachmann's organizational dominance was obvious from the minute I parked my car. She employed a fleet of golf carts to shuttle elderly attendees to-and-from the parking lot and the voting booths, and an army of volunteers focused intently on sheparding supporters toward the polls.

Registering for the event was a prerequisite for entering Bachmann's cavernous (if somewhat pungent-smelling) tent, where she entertained voters with live Christian rock and a special performance from country music star Randy Travis (at that point, the crowd spilled well out of the tent and brought in dozens of supporters of other candidates). Bachmann's win also owes something to the underlying qualities that go unmentioned in her speech but which have made her a hit among Iowa conservatives. As I noted earlier, Wallbuilders co-founder Rick Green, a Christian Reconstructionist who believes Christians have an obligation to take over government, spoke on Bachmann's stage in the morning and revved up the crowd with a message that offered the audience a glimpse of the candidate's roots as a proponent of Biblical Constitutionalism. Christian values: good; Moral relativism: Bad.

The dreadlocked Bachmann supporter in the "Jesus is my Rock" t-shirt might beg to difer, but in Iowa, Bachmann demonstrated that, at least in this truncated version of the GOP field, she is a rock star. Bachmann commanded a crowd twice as large as anyone else's when she showed up at the Iowa State Fair to speak from the Des Moines Register "soapbox," and she was the only one who had a state police escort. At her speech in Ames, she whipped the crowd into a frenzy (Only Paul, who was an anti-government crusader before it was cool, could come anywhere close). This, from Sandra Beak of Illinois, was a typical reaction from the congresswoman's supporters: "I saw Michele Bachmann last night—Oh my gosh! That woman is energetic! She never stops! It's amazing!"

Those are four things no one has ever said about Tim Pawlenty. Leading up to the poll, Pawlenty continued to do all the little things that candidates are supposed to do—serving up the best barbecue and handing out Dairy Queen blizzards; fine-tuning his stump speech over the course of the week into one that, at least on paper, finally seemed to work; showing up on time and staying on message—but the enthusiasm just wasn't there.

On the day that Texas Gov. Rick Perry finally stepped into the ring, the Ames results carry with them a serious disclaimer: We're about to hit restart on the whole race. Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner from day one, chose to spend the day in New Hampshire and skip the straw poll entirely. The results don't mean everything, but they weren't meaningless either. If nothing else, consider this: two-thirds of Ames voters chose candidates—Paul and Bachmann—who were decidedly in the fringe of the party in 2008. This is your new GOP.

Update: Here's the final tally. Out of 16,892 votes:

4,823 for Bachmann

4671 for Paul

2293 for Pawlenty

1657 for Santorum

1456 for Cain

718 for Perry (write-in)

567 for Romney (skipped)

385 for Newt (skipped)

69 for Huntsman (skipped)

35 for McCotter

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is running for president.

It's tough to get inside Michele Bachmann's tent at the Ames Straw Poll. Just a few yards away from Herman Cain's headquarters, where you can walk right up and grab a slice of Godfather's Pizza, the line stretches well out the door—and it's moving especially slowly because only Bachmann supporters are allowed in. It's also where I found Rick Green talking about "moral relativism."

Green, dressed in blue jeans, glasses, and an American-flag polo shirt, is the co-founder of Wallbuilders, the Texas-based organization that's "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation." The name is a reference to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the Book of Nehemiah. If you know the organization at all, though, you know it as the home of David Barton, whose revisionist history about the faith of the Founders has made him a certified celebrity on the Right. (Mike Huckabee says Barton's he's one of the most important authors in America.) In their literature and on their radio show, they construct a clear narrative: America is a fundamentally Christian nation, divinely inspired.

That's the gospel Green is preaching today in the Bachmann tent. "We're not just gonna say, 'oooh everybody's equal and moral relativism for all!," he tells the crowd, cowbells ringing. Instead, we need to take a stand, and there is no one better to do that than Michele Bachmann: "She's got a backbone that'll make a freight train take a back road."

Green launches into a short allegory about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and then, with members of the audience holding up their hands in prayer, revival-style, returns back to the situation at hand: "This is the hour, my friends, that you get to stand guard at the watchtower of freedom."

Darwin Hofmeister of Ackley, Iowa is standing just a few dozen feet away from the stage. He was a Tim Pawlenty supporter before he switched to Bachmann. "Are you familiar with the Family Leader?" Hofmeister asks me, referring to Iowa’s leading social conservative group. Last month the Family Leader unveiled a pledge that candidates would be required to sign to be eligible for the group's endorsement—in included, among other things, a vow to oppose gay marriage, fight pornography, and ban Islamic Sharia law (it also suggested that black families were more stable under slavery). "Her and Rick Santorum were the only ones that signed the pledge. And to me that made all the difference"

"I think that's probably one of the most important issues," Hofmeister tells me. "All you have to do is look at the riots in London and state fairs and you'll see a bunch of kids with no values." So does he agree with Green's statement that moral relativism is ruining America? "Definitely."

Bachmann, of course, has taken a stand against moral relativism, which, in the late 1990s, she believed was leading America down the road to totalitarianism. It's a deep-seated belief that extends back to her admiration for the theologian Francis Schaeffer, whose work Bachmann was exposed to in college. Pundits can parse her words for signs that she has abandoned social issues in favor of mainstream economic concerns, but you don't have to look far here at Ames to see otherwise.

Unlike his fellow GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum, Ron Paul doesn't mind if you Google him.

On Friday Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa and current editor-in-chief of the influential Iowa Republican (TIR) news site, boldly reconfirmed his earlier prediction that Texas Rep. Ron Paul would win Saturday's Ames Straw Poll. On Saturday afternoon, after speeches by Newt Gingrich, Gov. Terry Branstad, and the notorious conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King at the TIR tent, I asked Robinson if his opinion had changed.

"There's an awful lot of people on the backside of this building," where Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum all set up shop, Robinson said, but from his vantage point he hadn't been able to judge the success of Ron Paul's and Tim Pawlenty's turnout operations. (The enigmatic Thaddeus McCotter is within Robinson's view, too, but hasn't attracted much attention despite his safety clown van.)

"I think turnout's going to be high, and for me I think that kind of lends itself to a Bachmann victory, maybe, or even an upset from someone else," Robinson said. He's still predicting that Paul and Bachmann will take the top two spots (not necessarily in that order), and—with the caveat that he hadn't seen Pawlenty's tent, where turnout has been strong too—a surprisingly good finish by Cain or Santorum. (Paul, who paid top-dollar for his tent location, has had a strong group of supporters hanging out near Hilton Colisium, where the candidates are speaking.)

Tim Pawlenty tries to attract straw poll voters with BBQ ribs. (Photo: Gavin Aronsen)Tim Pawlenty tries to win over straw poll voters with BBQ ribs. (Photo: Gavin Aronsen)The first part of Robinson's comment is in line with today's conventional wisdom: a high turnout will help Michele Bachmann while a lower turnout would have been better for Paul or Tim Pawlenty, considered by many to be Bachmann's top rival at the straw poll. The turnout does look high, with Bachmann drawing a huge lunch line in a packed tent that smells like MoJo reporter Tim Murphy's soccer cleats.

There was a similar narrative in 2007, when prognosticators said a large turnout would help Mitt Romney and a lower turnout would give the win to Mike Huckabee. Romney won that time.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) at the Republican Leadership Conference in Louisiana.

When Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) announced that he would run for president at the beginning of July, Republican voters replied with a collective "Who?"—if they even caught the news at all. A month later, if his appearance Friday morning at the Des Moines Register's Iowa State Fair soapbox was any indication, McCotter's only just begun to get his name out. "I'd never heard about him until the last week or so," said Martha Meyer, an undecided voter from Pleasant Hill, Iowa. (The notable exception here is in Michigan, where McCotter recently polled ahead of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, for whom Saturday's Ames Straw Poll could be a make-or-break moment.)

McCotter, a mild-mannered Midwesterner with engaging dry wit, hails from Livonia in metropolitan Detroit. He was first elected to Congress in 2002, after stints as a lawyer, county commissioner, and state senator. He is notable for his quirkiness, playing in a band called the Second Amendments and quoting Led Zeppelin from the House floor. "You need to see Thad as an artist, not a politician," an associate explained to the Detroit News.

Part Tea Party conservative, part nonconformist, the 45-year-old McCotter distinguishes himself from the pack with his unapologetic support for blue-collar workers. He's among a handful of Republican representatives who voted for the auto industry bailout, a minimum wage raise, and collective bargaining agreements. On the soapbox, he said that Wall Street banks should be "restructured and recapitalized without taxpayer money" and vowed to deregulate a "highly bureaucratic Washington," but acknowledged that Americans "believe in a social safety net to help those who cannot help themselves, as Lincoln taught us." (He still opposes Obamacare.)

Yes, that's a stuffed buck in the background of this photo of Texas Gov. Rick Perry pointing at something.

The Values Voters Bus Tour kicked off with a good deal of hullabaloo on Tuesday with a rally in Des Moines starring Tim Pawlenty. But by the time the bus pulled up for at the central square in Atlantic, about an hour east of Omaha, it had petered out. Just 10 supporters showed up to hear Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) speak along with representatives of the tour's sponsors—the Family Research Council, the Susan B. Anthony List, the Iowa Values Alliance Faith Family Freedom Fund, and the National Organization for Marriage. They were joined by 10 protesters (with signs like "if you cut off my reproductive choice, can I cut off yours?") who heckled the speakers and challenged them on their opposition to gay marriage.

And, as has been a trend at events here in Iowa for the last week, there were five volunteers for a campaign that does not currently exist—that of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Nate Crain, the national finance chairman for Americans for Rick Perry, has been driving around an otherwise unmarked white van plastered with homemade "Rick Perry 2012" signs, attempting to sell Iowans on the candidate with whom (per FEC rules) he is allowed no formal contact. At Atlantic, Crain bounded out of the van in a button-down shirt patterned on the Texas flag and introduced himself. "This is a grassroots effort, man," he said. "Those guys, Bachmann, Pawlenty—those guys, they're busing people in. This is all grassroots. I mean, look at our damn signs! The kids made 'em with markers in the hotel room."

The kids, as he calls them, are his volunteers: Three female undergraduates from the University of Texas at Austin, all dressed in jogging shorts and identical burnt-orange, "Americans for Rick Perry" t-shirts. "People really love the shirts," Crain says. They are, save for one protester, the only young people in attendance.

Perry has not made any appearance in Iowa this week, but his presence has been felt at every event I've attended. "I'm really up on Rick Perry," said Thersa Wig of Des Moines when I asked her whom she'll be voting for at the Iowa State Fair. "He held the prayer thing, and I did see him on TBN. I dunno, I've got to see more, but he looks presidential. I think his physical looks are important." Wig voted for Fred Thompson in 2008, a candidate to whom Perry is (unfavorably) compared. Donna Oakley, a Missourian I spoke with a the Iowa State Fair, said much the same thing: "So far he looks the best. He's ringin' my bell. He just comes on strong to me on what my values are. I liked his record on the jobs in his state—and I like that he has God in his life."

One of the big arguments against the Ames straw poll is that the race is just too unsettled for the event to mean much of anything: Candidates haven't quite figured out how to connect, voters haven't really started paying attention, donors are still looking for something more, and the field isn't even set yet. Rarely has that problem been more pronounced than this year, with Perry scheduled to announce his candidacy today, some 1,500 miles away in South Carolina, right as the candidates are heading onstage at Hilton Coliseum to make their pitches to straw poll voters. That's why today's winner, whether it's Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, or Tim Pawlenty, won't have much time to gloat; Perry's about to hit the restart button on the whole thing.

Say what you will about Rick Santorum (odds are people have said worse), but he has undeniably put an enormous amount of effort into the Iowa straw poll. As he tells anyone who will listen—at Thursday’s debate, and again on the soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Friday—he has spent more time in the Hawkeye State than any other candidate. He has visited 51 cites over the last three weeks, and believes his message that liberals "will put you in chains" is finally starting to resonate. Ames, he tells supporters, is where he's going to shock the world.

So that's Rick Santorum's goal for the today in Ames. But as I mentioned yesterday, the Straw Poll is about much, much more than actual voting. It's like a mini-county fair, in which the various candidates try to offer the most enticing culinary and entertainment options. And Santorum has come up with…well he's come up with this:

Photo: Tim MurphyPhoto: Tim MurphyHe will host the "Santorum Summer Dance Party" with Big Bopper Jr. and The Crickets. The name of the event comes from the "Winter Dance Party," which was the last show that Big Bopper Sr. played before dying in a fiery plane crash. Apparently "Rick Santorum’s Custer's Last Stand" was too clunky.

As state legislatures start closing up for the year, there are a number of abortion-related bills that didn't make big headlines. In the first six months of 2011 alone, there were 162 abortion or reproductive-related bills enacted by state legislatures, so it was inevitable some wouldn't make it past the local paper. Here are a few I thought were noteworthy.

Arizona: HB 2384 revoked public funding to any organization that "pays for, promotes, provides coverage of or provides referrals for abortions." This would stop the use of student fees and tuition to train OB/GYN students to perform abortions. In addition, it would revoke a tax credit for donations to organizations that provide abortions, like Planned Parenthood, as well as to any institutions that might refer clients to Planned Parenthood, like domestic violence shelters.

Nebraska: LB 22 dictates that private insurance plans in Nebraska not cover abortion except for in cases where the woman's life is in danger. Any woman with private insurance desiring an abortion coverage must buy a separate "rider" for it out of her own funds, assuming her carrier has one. The bill carried no exceptions for rape or incest. This is especially burdensome for young women, as the state also passed a bill changing its parental notice law into a parental consent law.

Oklahoma: The state passed a bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks on the belief that fetuses can feel pain at that age. But the state also passed smaller, less flashy bills. HB 1970 added the phrase "or any abortion-inducing drug" to a bill that already required doctors use RU-486 only for FDA-approved (not off-label) purposes. This was to ensure doctors and clinics like Planned Parenthood were not able to prescribe Cytotec (misoprostol) for first-trimester medical abortions, even in conjunction with RU-486, and even though doctors often prescribe medications for off-label use when proven safe by scientific trials. The bill would effectively end most medical abortions, leaving clients to pursue riskier surgical abortions instead.

North CarolinaHB 854 was vetoed by the governor, but the veto was overridden. As a result this bill required women to wait 24 hours for an abortion, and required doctors to perform an ultrasound before the procedure. If the women refused to view the ultrasound, her refusal was kept on file for 7 years. But here's the under-covered part of the bill: it would also allow the father of the fetus and the spouse, parent, sibling, current health care provider, or former health care provider of the woman getting the abortion to sue the doctor if they believe any part of the bill has been violated. A woman's ex-boyfriend or childhood pediatrician, for example, could sue a clinic if they believed the performing physician had not done an ultrasound as required.

Tennessee: This bill wasn't specifically about abortion, but expanded fetal personhood, which can be a slippery slope. SB 633 expanded the definition of "fetal homicide" to include the fetus at any stage of development, not just when the fetus is viable as previously. Fetuses are now considered victims of assault whenever the mother is assaulted.







One of the more candid moments in Thursday's Republican presidential debate here in Ames, Iowa came when the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) if she submits to her husband. The normal response when confronted with an uncomfortable query is to segue to talking points about "jobs" instead, but of course that's hard to do in this case, and so Bachmann didn't. Instead, after waiting for the booing audience to quiet down, she came up with this:

Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I'm in love with him, I'm so proud of him. And what submission means to us—if that's what your question is—is respect. I respect my husband...and he respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other.

The context is that Bachmann has previously said, at least when she's speaking to Christian audiences, that she took orders from her husband about  whether to pursue a degree in tax law, noting that Ephesians 5:21-33 calls for women to be submissive to their husbands. But there are varying arguments about just what "submission" looks like. Here's how Janice Shaw Crouse explained it in the Washington Post in July:

In the context of women in leadership, it is important to note that biblical submission is about harmony and well-being within the home and the relationship between a husband and a wife; it has nothing to do with leadership responsibilities, except that no one—even the president of the United States—should treat others with disrespect, expect a subservient spirit from anyone or demand total surrender of another person’s will. Thus, a woman who willingly submits to her husband—and enjoys his equal submission, nurturing and cherishing—does not have a similar relationship with the men at work.

Right. Another way to think of it in that context is that it's the opposite of "domination," which is not really recommended for long-term relationships anyhow. Crouse is specifically frustrated with the notion that submissive wives are depicted as "Stepford wives"—a stereotype that's been promoted by at least one Bachmann chronicler. In this case it's clear that Bachmann's "submission" hasn't kept her down, in the sense that she's a successful politician who's now a plausible candidate for the most powerful job in the world (her husband, Marcus, is neither of those things.)

But here's another take on submission, from Kathryn Joyce in MoJo:

It's the role of older women to help her understand her priorities. Those priorities may include rising early to feed the family, being available anytime to satisfy a husband's desires (barring a few "ungodly" or "homosexual" acts), seeking his approval regarding work, appearance, and leisure, and accepting that he has the "burden" of final say in arguments. After a wife has respectfully appealed her spouse's decision—a privilege she should not abuse—she must accept his final answer as "God's will for her at that time," Peace advises.

That sounds a bit different, right? It's not unheard of for this to become a political issue: Last summer, when Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.) was running to unseat Democrat Alan Grayson, Webster's endorsement of Christian patriarchy prompted Grayson to dub him "Taliban Dan." York is defending his question, and that's fine; as he noted, it would be kind of shocking if no one asked Bachmann about this over the next year or so.

Still, given the pointed, gotcha nature of the questions last night (I mean that in a good way), this might have been a missed opportunity. Bachmann has been cutting off interviews left and right when the subject turns to homosexuality. Why not ask her whether she still believes gays are attempting to indoctrinate young children?

2012 GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

Though Texas Governor Rick Perry did not attend Thursday's GOP debate in Iowa, he wasn't the only presidential candidate who seemed noticeably absent from the proceedings: Jon Huntsman was MIA, too. Huntsman was physically present, of course, but the Huntsman from the start of the campaign barely made an appearance, especially when it came to addressing Mitt Romney's record.

By mid-July, the only person Huntsman seemed to take more swipes at than his former boss (i.e., Barack Obama) was Mitt Romney. During a campaign stop in South Carolina, Huntsman delivered this passive-aggressive critique of Romney's unimpressive job creation credentials:

When you look at the absolute increases in job creation, Utah led the United States in job creation. That compared and contrasted with other states — say, Massachusetts, I'll just pull that out randomly — not first, but 47th.

The Huntsman campaign followed up by stating that Massachusetts's job growth under Romney was "abysmal by every standard," and that "we assume...Romney will continue to run away from his record." Later that month, Huntsman—who had come out with an unambiguous endorsement of John Boehner's debt bill—was hugely critical of Romney's silence and bet-hedging on the debt ceiling crisis, saying that "to dodge the debate or to wait until the debate is over effectively and to take a side, I don't consider that to be leadership."

But during the Fox News debate Thursday night, Huntsman chose not to land a single direct blow to his opponent's economic policies or leadership skills. The closest Huntsman came to actually going after Romney was his repetition of the "some people run away from their record" line, but even that wasn’t explicitly targeted at any one candidate on stage.

Considering how badly Tim Pawlenty folded to Romney during the last Republican debate—backing away from the well-publicized "Obamneycare" jab—it would have been refreshing to see the GOP "frontrunner" meaningfully challenged in a public forum right before the Ames Straw Poll.

Whatever negatives there are about Huntsman (his not-quite-sound environmentalism, the potential corporate skeletons in his closet, the atonal-ness of his new bandmates), last night's debate did highlight his consistence and levelheadedness, especially when compared to candidates who wanted to, for example, "use Egyptian allies" to intervene in Libya during the Arab Spring. But with negligible poll numbers and a slender cash haul, the self-described odd-man-out had nothing to lose from reiterating his strong criticism of Romney's executive tenure. So, it begs the question: Where exactly was the "real" Jon Huntsman during last night's debate?

Wisconsin Republican Kim Simac has encountered plenty of problems in her bid to unseat Democratic State Senator Jim Holperin in one of the Badger's State final two recall elections on Tuesday. It emerged that she once compared public education in America to Nazism. And her 32-page children's book, "American Soldier Proud and Free," a self-published ode to patriotism, turned out to have been published in China.

But from a policy perspective, those gaffes pale in comparison to what Simac said—or failed to say—earlier this week. As part of a forum hosted by the WJRO radio station, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, Simac was asked what particular legislation she would support or challenge if elected to the State Senate. Amazingly, Simac could not name a single bill. Not one. Here was her response:

"Hmm, well, I think that...I guess I would have to say that with all of the things that I've been looking at, I think you just stumped me. All the things I've been looking at for all the last couple months here trying to get up on board as a new candidate, I've been trying to stay up with the issues, but I would have to say that I can't name you a single one right now."

Simac even admits that she can't name a single bill she would back or oppose; a basic question that even a political neophyte could expect has "stumped" her. Simac's excuse: she's been spending all her time talking to voters in Holperin's northeastern Wisconsin district. What it is that Simac is discussing with them is anyone's guess.