In what ended up as a revolving door weekend for the Republican presidential hopefuls, the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, exited the race yesterday, citing a poor showing in a non-binding straw poll of party voters in Iowa, just hours after Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, confirmed that he was coming in. Mr Pawlenty, who had seemed well positioned at first to build support, both among conservatives and social moderates in the party, had been faltering for weeks before he came in a distant third in the much vaunted Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, behind maverick libertarian Ron Paul and the Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
The drama of the weekend, which began with a feisty television debate in Ames on Thursday, thus brought the first winnowing out of the field of contenders for the nomination. While there is still almost six months before the state-by-state selection process begins, in the Iowa caucuses in February, there are signs now that it may quickly boil down to a three-way bout featuring Ms Bachmann, Governor Perry and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who has led in national polls for many weeks.
While Sunday's straw poll should not be taken as a serious predictor of things to come in the race – candidates essentially bribe supporters to show up and vote by offering transport and buying them tickets to participate – it can give a boost to those who do well.
Mr Paul, with his radical anti-war and anti-Federal Reserve diatribes, organised well, and has very wide student support, but is not likely to survive in the long-run.
Ms Bachmann, who has emerged as an unexpected challenge to Mr Romney, who did not participate in the Ames poll, will use the result to boost fundraising and begin building a national campaign network. "We're going person to person, state by state," she declared yesterday, starting with visits this week to the key early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. Governor Perry announced in the latter and spoke to Republicans in the former on Saturday night.
The entry of Mr Perry could spell trouble for Mr Romney, who has been serene in his front-of-the-pack position all summer. The Texan got more write-in votes in Ames than Mr Romney, whose strategists will only hope that Mr Perry and Ms Bachmann split the conservative vote and let their man through.
That Mr Pawlenty, who told rural Iowans that President Barack Obama's policies were as helpful as a manure-spreader in a gale, chose to quit so quickly after Ames caught some by surprise. "We needed to get some lift to continue on and to have a pathway forward. That didn't happen," he told ABC News. "I wish it would have been different. But, obviously, the pathway forward for me doesn't really exist."
Anecdotal evidence suggested that he was abandoned at the last moment by some of his putative supporters, upset by the unexpectedly aggressive stance that he took at the Thursday's debate, particularly towards Ms Bachmann. The governor may have been over-correcting after being told by pundits and commentators that he had been insufficiently aggressive during a first debate two months ago.
Sue Matejka, 65, a retired defence company executive, admitted quietly, for example, that she had accepted a free ride on a Pawlenty-chartered bus to vote at the straw poll but in fact filled in the box for Ms Bachmann.