AMES, IOWA - In the first key test of the 2012 presidential campaign, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won Saturday's Iowa GOP straw poll, while fellow Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty finished third.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a darling of the libertarian movement, came in a close second.

"We did this together," Bachmann, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, told her supporters after her victory. She called the win a "down payment" on making President Obama a one-term president.

Even before the results were announced, Bachmann's campaign locked up interviews on all the major Sunday morning TV talk shows, guaranteeing an immense publicity boost from her Iowa performance.

Bachmann received 4,823 of the more than 16,000 ballots cast, narrowly edging out Paul, who got 4,671. Pawlenty got 2,293 votes, less than half of Bachmann's total.

In percentage terms, it was a virtual tie between Bachmann, with 28 percent of the vote, and Paul, with 27 percent. Pawlenty's tally came to 13 percent.

Bachmann had several strong showings in Iowa polls leading up to Saturday and was seen as having strong appeal among religious and fiscal conservatives in her native state. Pawlenty had put a great deal of time and money into doing well in the straw poll, so his finish raised some questions about his political future.

Still, he did better than some polls had suggested, and the results could keep his struggling campaign alive. He said before the balloting that he'd have to "reassess" his campaign if he didn't do well, but vowed after the results were announced to continue his campaign.

Pawlenty congratulated Bachmann while calling the result a partial win for himself. "We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do."

On Sunday, Pawlenty announced he was ending his bid.

Earlier in the day, Pawlenty had stood on his campaign stage introducing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who played bass guitar, but made no endorsements. Pawlenty told his backers only that he expected the day's voting to give his campaign "momentum."

Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, said the straw poll was not about winning, but about meeting expectations, particularly for Bachmann and Pawlenty, considering how much both of them staked on the event.

"This is a race between the Minnesotans," Huckabee told the Star Tribune. "It's not the absolute finale, one won't necessarily go out in a wooden box, but one of the Minnesotans will come out of here a whole lot better than the other one."

Center of political world

Amid a carnival atmosphere that marked Saturday's event, the unofficial kickoff to the 2012 presidential campaign, Ames' convention-goers found themselves at the epicenter of the political world for one sun-splashed day. "Choosing President Obama's Republican successor starts today," said Iowa GOP Party Chairman Matt Strawn. "It starts in Iowa."

The Ames Straw Poll has come under increasing fire in recent years for representing only a thin rural slice of the American electorate. The event rarely predicts the eventual party nominee, but it can cull the herd of contenders.

The straw poll got short shrift from this year's national GOP front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won it in 2008 but did not campaign in Iowa this year. On Saturday, Romney came in seventh, garnering just 567 votes.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declared his candidacy on Saturday in South Carolina, got 718 write-in votes, enough for a sixth-place finish. His decision to announce his candidacy on the day of the straw poll was viewed by some as an attempt to steal some of Bachmann's thunder.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who also campaigned hard in Iowa, finished fourth, about 400 votes behind Pawlenty. Godfather's Pizza founder Herman Cain, a crowd favorite, finished fifth.

Pawlenty has campaigned extensively in Iowa for the past year, spending more than $1 million to run radio and TV ads and build up a sophisticated political organization. While Bachmann only got into the race in June, she's been able to trade on her ardent social conservatism, her Iowa roots, and a wave of media interest.

"The success we've had in finding Michele Bachmann supporters across the state in a five-week period to come out for her in the caucus is historic," said deputy campaign manager David Polyansky.

In the game of expectations, both campaigns tried hard to tamp theirs down in advance of the voting. That was particularly true for Pawlenty, who has yet to gain traction in most polls.

But even the expected victors played down the significance of the straw poll, saying their true objective is winning the Iowa caucuses early next year.

The winners and losers were hard to predict from the crowds at their tents. About 300 people waited for post-voting corn dogs at Bachmann's hosting station at midday. The same number stood in the shade to pick up the Pawlenty BBQ and Dairy Queen Blizzards, which ran out mid-afternoon.

Pawlenty's organizational prowess was on display at his tent -- his food line moved quickly and his volunteers, many of whom were players in the Minnesota GOP establishment, guided voters efficiently toward the voting area.

His backers emphasized electability against Obama.

"Of the candidates here, I think he's probably the most qualified to be president,'' said Pawlenty voter Travis Sutton of West Des Moines.

Sutton added that the straw poll works to weed out candidates. "I don't want Tim Pawlenty to get weeded out,'' he said.

Bachmann partisans stressed the consistency of her conservative convictions. "She just fights for us really hard," said Thomas Kesten, an 18-year-old college student from Fort Dodge.

Bachmann volunteers in orange T-shirts also guided potential voters to her tent, where country star Randy Travis performed and Bachmann danced with her husband, Marcus.

Besides Bachmann and Pawlenty, those who rented tents to be on the ballot included Paul, Cain, Santorum and Thaddeus McCotter, who got only 35 votes. In addition to those who reserved space, the Iowa GOP also included Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman. For the first time, a write-in option was available, opening a way for Perry to be counted.

Long lines formed outside both tents for food, tickets and entertainment. But the main attraction at the Bachmann tent was Bachmann herself. "She organized the Tea Party," said Des Moines retiree Lee Stine, standing in line to register. "It shows she's a leader."

Pawlenty touts electability

Pawlenty's supporters, clad in green "Pawlenty 12" T-shirts, greeted him with chants of "T-Paw" when he entered the Hilton Coliseum, where he vowed to carry Minnesota and other states where he said it's hard for Republicans to get elected.

"We need to not just preach to the choir," said Pawlenty, standing in an open-collar shirt.

Bachmann's campaign did not organize a large cheering section for her speech, but with her star-power hold over the GOP activists at the convention, she hardly needed it. "Everything I needed to learn in life I learned in Iowa," she said, playing to her audience. "It's time to have an Iowan in the White House."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.