CHARLESTON, S.C. - Fresh off her GOP straw poll win in Iowa, Michele Bachmann has gone south, where she suddenly finds herself contending with Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the affection of the Republican Party's establishment and its Tea Party base.

The Minnesota Republican rallied an enthusiastic crowd here Thursday evening, while mindful of polls that show Perry surging ahead of her and Mitt Romney. "I feel very much at home here," she told the gathering of several hundred GOP and Tea Party activists in Charleston.

Making a surprise appearance -- but not an endorsement -- was Gov. Nikki Haley, who was introduced by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as an "undecided voter."

Bachmann's swing through South Carolina, where she has become a frequent visitor, will be followed this weekend with a tour through Florida, beginning Friday at a Jacksonville Beach sub shop. Bachmann also plans to work her base of religious conservatives Sunday at a Baptist church service in Lutz, Fla.

But for Bachmann, South Carolina and its large bank of conservative evangelical voters remains critical turf if she is to stay relevant in the 2012 GOP race. She is scheduled to return for a Labor Day candidate forum sponsored by the Palmetto Freedom Forum in Columbia. Perry also is confirmed, but not Romney, who has spent little time in South Carolina.

Bachmann used an hour-long question-and-answer session Thursday to lay out her conservative principles on free enterprise, limited government and opposition to President Obama's health-care overhaul.

"I want you to know it will be a lot of tough love," Bachmann said of her political agenda. Referring to herself as a "woman of prayer," Bachmann also said the United States "needs a miracle right now."

"Her message definitely resonates with folks down here who are a little more Tea Party and less establishment," said Tim Callanan, chairman of the Berkeley County Republican Party.

Bachmann is traveling the South playing defense against Perry, who stole some of her thunder by announcing his candidacy on the same day as her straw poll victory in Iowa two weeks ago. Perry's fortunes have since swelled, at considerable cost to Romney but also to Bachmann, who has seen her standing in national polls erode for the first time since she launched her campaign in June.

Two national Republican presidential polls released this week showed Perry surging into the lead, suggesting that Bachmann has enjoyed little momentum from her straw poll victory in Iowa.

Polls from both Gallup and Public Policy Polling have Perry in the top spot over Romney, with Perry leading 29 to 17 percent in the Gallup poll and 33 to 20 percent in the Public Policy Polling survey. Bachmann finished third in the Public Policy poll at 16 percent, and she dropped to fourth at 10 percent in the Gallup poll behind Rep. Ron Paul, who was a close second in the Iowa straw poll.

In addition, a new Sachs/Mason-Dixon Florida Poll showed that 51 percent of Floridians would vote for Romney compared to 43 percent for Obama. In a matchup with Perry, Obama would lose 46 percent to 45 percent. But Obama still leads Bachmann 46 percent to 44 percent.

Also on Thursday, Magellan Strategies released the results of a survey of likely Republican caucus voters in Iowa. The survey found Perry leading Bachmann by 2 points, a statistical tie. Romney was a close third.

Whatever the numbers, they point to Perry re-aligning the GOP race and eating at Bachmann's base. In the Public Policy poll, he led Bachmann in a two-way race, 56 percent to 26 percent.

Bachmann took largely sympathetic questions at the town hall gathering in Charleston moderated by Scott, a conservative black Republican freshman in Congress. The event was held at the Trident Technical College, the first in a "South Presidential Town Hall" series emphasizing jobs and the economy.

The venue drew criticism from Obama allies who noted that the school received more than $2.6 million in federal stimulus funds to increase its health care program and nursing graduates.

Bachmann, noting the nation's persistent joblessness, told the gathering that the stimulus bill "had the opposite of the effect we were told it would have."

She was greeted by a live blues band, a large auditorium filled with Tea Party and Republican activists, and a smattering of protesters outside.

"Michele is the one who reflects my values the best," said Cathy Tyler, a former GM manager in Michigan who retired to Charleston with her husband after the federal government's bailout. "I watched her through the health care debate and she stood tall."

But like many in the crowd, Tyler said she is still "evaluating" the GOP field.

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