Matinée-idol Texan powerhouse enters race for the Republican nomination

Born-again Christians flock to the cause of Governor Rick Perry, as Tea Party favourite Michele Bachmann wins Iowa straw poll

The race for the Republican presidential nomination was in convulsions last night as Rick Perry, the charismatic Texas governor, elbowed his way into a messy field of rivals who, a thousand miles away, were in the throes of a first beauty contest among the corn stalks and dairy cows of Iowa.

A weekend that should have been all about the Ames Straw Poll, a first test of the candidates' strength in the state that will kick off the nomination process, became a split-screen affair after Mr Perry confirmed his candidacy at noon at a conservative conference in South carolina.

"It is time to get America working again," Mr Perry said in a statement. "That's why, with the support of my family and an unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today my candidancy for President of the United States." On a conference call to voters earlier he had boasted: "I full well believe I'm going to win."

That Mr Perry – a matinée-idol powerhouse on the right of the party with a strong record in Texas – is now making his own bid for the nomination and thereafter, he hopes, the White House, is a game-changer, with analysts predicting that he will quickly move to the front of the pack. This will threaten the momentum most notably of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Ms Bachmann, hitherto the Tea Party favourite, was among contenders who yesterday had thrown up a huge tent on the campus of Iowa State University, with free food and music, to lure voters to the Iowa Straw Poll. She was duly rewarded by victory in the straw poll.

Among the throngs of her supporters was Andy Pierce, 67, a financial adviser who had driven 90 miles from Ottumwa in southeast Iowa. He said the Minnesota congresswoman would be a staunch leader, committed to conservatism and reining in Washington. "We need someone who is like a Margaret Thatcher," he said, adding that she had "paid her dues" by campaigning all across the state.

Late on Friday, Ms Bachmann, who cuts a surprisingly fragile figure in person, was almost overwhelmed by jostling fans when she arrived at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, 30 minutes south of Ames. She delivered what turned out to be an oddly perfunctory speech that offered little more than her familiar rallying cry that Barack Obama had better know he is going to be a "one-term president".

Deeper press scrutiny of Ms Bachmann, including a wide-eyed portrait on the cover of Newsweek which made her seem mildly rabid, and profiles probing her extreme Christian views, may be taking their toll. "I liked the look of Michele Bachmann until she opened her mouth," confessed Jimmy Farrell, 73, who was tending bar at the Steer N Stein saloon. "She's a dingbat." That she may be in many eyes, but last night, she was, for this day at least, a winning dingbat.

Almost as big a draw at the fair was Sarah Palin, the party's vice-presidential pick in 2008, who attempted to wander among its attractions – which included a life-sized cow sculpted out of butter – while pursued by a scrum of fans and reporters. She has still not revealed her intentions. Like a putative date who looks interested in you but never says yes, she may be stretching the patience even of her most devout backers. "I think I still have time," she responded when asked by the Independent on Sunday about why she was still dithering. Asked if she would oblige with a scoop on the subject, she merely smiled from behind her designer sunglasses while an impatient bodyguard interjected "Yeah, of ice cream", before shoving this reporter to one side.

Mr Perry, who will make a debut appearance of his own in Iowa tonight – in Waterloo, Ms Bachmann's birthplace – enters the race with several advantages. Texas has far outperformed every other state in job creation under his watch. He cemented his following among born-again Christians with a huge prayer rally in Houston last weekend which attracted a 30,000-strong crowd.

But while he may be formidable in the primary contest where appealing to the right is crucial, his overt religiosity and other hidden problems in Texas – the state's budget is a shambles – could make him a less safe bet for the party in the election proper, when winning will depend on attracting independents.

Also with much at stake yesterday was Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, widely considered a serious contender when he pitched his hat into the ring in the spring, but who has notably failed to pick up speed. He had badly needed a top-tier showing in last night's poll.