Perry, Bachmann, Romney Separate Themselves From 2012 GOP Pack

Five things the weekend revealed about the Republican candidates' race toward 2012.

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In what pundits dubbed the biggest weekend for the 2012 campaign so far, Rep. Michele Bachmann took first prize at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty bowed out after coming in third, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially entered the race as a top-tier candidate. Pawlenty's departure was the only real surprise since few political strategists expected it to come so early, and the weekend served mainly to solidify what primary season will look like.

Here are five things the events revealed about the Republican race:

1. Michele Bachmann is a credible candidate. Her far-right views, extreme religious and social conservatism, and very public bungling of American history made her critics question whether the Minnesota Republican congresswoman had staying power in a presidential election. But her poll numbers crept up as she struck a chord with conservative voters, causing pundits to take a second look.

Before Ames, the biggest question about Bachmann was whether her campaign had the organizational chops to pull off a good result. To succeed in Ames, candidates had to find and inspire supporters from around the state to actually attend the fair and vote. Her win showed she could do that. "It did cement Bachmann's standing in the top tier of candidates," says Republican strategist Jon McHenry, whose firm polls for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign. "Whether that lasts beyond the Iowa caucuses remains to be seen, but you can't just dismiss her out of hand at this point." [See photos of Bachmann on the campaign trail.]

It's also worth a bucket full of earned media. Bachmann was interviewed on the Sunday morning news shows of CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, and CBS. "Look at how much she's been on the air in the last 24 hours," says Republican strategist Ed Goeas, the Bachmann campaign's pollster. "That's worth millions of dollars.

2. The 2012 competition is a three-way race between Bachmann, Perry, and Mitt Romney. This is not a surprise, as political analysts were already speculating these three would be duking it out over the long haul once it became likely Perry would enter the race.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, ranks the top three in this order: former Massachusetts Governor Romney, Perry, Bachmann. "It's hard to see how any of the others break through," he says. "Surprises happen, but it's going to be tough."

And with Bachmann and Perry both working for the support of Tea Party and evangelical Christian conservatives, the two may have to fight for elbow room as the Romney-alternative candidate. Both have anti-Washington platforms, McHenry points out. While Perry has touted Texas's job-creation record as evidence he can aid the nation's ailing economy, he has also suggested his state may get fed up and secede from the union. "You don't get more 'running against Washington' than saying your state should secede," says McHenry. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Goeas agrees that the race will, sooner or later, become two-way. "At some point, it's going to get down to Mitt Romney versus someone else," he says, suggesting that the early Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina contests will be key, particularly in deciding how good Romney's chances are. "I think if it continues to be a three-person race much past South Carolina, then I think that benefits Mitt Romney. If it moves down through South Carolina to a two-person race, then it's a different story."

3. There is not much political air left in the race for Sarah Palin. Bachmann and Perry have the right flank of the contest covered, so there is no gaping hole in the top tier of candidates for Palin to rush into. Though Republican strategists and political observers say she could make room for herself if she wanted to, she probably won't. "She's very unlikely to be the nominee," says Sabato, "and she knows that." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Palin.]

4. Not much has changed for Rep. Ron Paul. Yes, he got a commendable second place in Ames with 4,671 votes, but experts say this is same old, same old for Paul, who has already run for president twice and often makes a grand showing at straw polls. "The thing about Ron Paul is the 4,000 and change voters who supported him in the straw poll may only be the only 4,000 and change voters he has total in the state," says McHenry. "That doesn't mean that he has a ton of support, but it means that the people who do support him are going to drive out to Ames and slog through a fairground to vote for him."