AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - It was Michele Bachmann’s big moment in the political spotlight and Rick Perry stomped all over it.
Despite her victory on Saturday in the Iowa straw poll, the first big test of the 2012 Republican U.S. presidential campaign, Bachmann had to share the national stage with Perry’s public leap into the White House race.
It won’t be the last time the congresswoman from Minnesota and the governor of Texas step on each other’s toes.
Both aim for the backing of the same bloc of religious and social conservatives who dominate Iowa’s kick-off nominating contest.
Both hope to become the chief Republican alternative to nominal front-runner Mitt Romney in the 2012 fight for the right to challenge President Barack Obama.
And both will be in Waterloo, Iowa, Bachmann’s birthplace, on Sunday night to speak at a local fund-raising dinner in what looks like Act One of a beautiful rivalry.
“Perry is the looming presence in Michele Bachmann’s future,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “They appeal to the same people.”
Perry and Bachmann share a deep Christian faith, a hearty distrust of the federal government and core conservative principles on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
But Bachmann, founder of the Tea Party caucus in Congress and an early supporter of the movement to reduce spending and government, has faced more questions than Perry about whether she can expand her appeal to a broader electorate.
Her straw poll win showed the power of her appeal to conservatives in Iowa but making her pitch to moderates and independents in states like New Hampshire and Florida could prove a tougher task.
‘HEARTS OF THE RIGHT WING’
“Right now, she can capture the hearts of the right wing,” Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said on CNN. “But she has to prove that she can be a general election candidate before Republicans will really take her seriously and move her into that top tier.”
At the straw poll, Bachmann left no doubt about where she was aiming her remarks.
“Whether we are Tea Party or social conservatives or fiscal conservatives or national security conservatives, if we stick together ... greatness will once again belong to the United States of America,” she said.
Perry, who hosted a national day of prayer a week ago and once asked drought-plagued Texans to pray for rain, also aims his appeal at social and religious conservatives.
But he also stresses his record of more than a decade of executive experience heading Texas, which has had strong job growth that could help him win over the party’s pro-business wing and independents.
On his visit to more moderate New Hampshire on Saturday, Perry dropped much of the social rhetoric and focused his remarks on the economy and jobs.
Bachmann is also certain to hear more criticism of her record, or lack of it, in Congress after rival Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, focused on her credentials during Thursday’s televised Republican debate.
Pawlenty ripped Bachmann for touting her opposition to higher spending, the healthcare overhaul and other government programs that passed over her objections.
But Pawlenty limped to a distant third-place finish in the straw poll and on Sunday became the first major Republican contender to exit the race. His campaign had been struggling while Bachmann was going strong.
The straw poll win “is a big boost for her,” former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who finished second in the 2007 straw poll, told reporters.
“Whoever wins or just comes in second, they get gas for their fire. Whoever doesn‘t, they get water for theirs,” he said. “People underestimate her. She stands her ground.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Jackie Frank