Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has gone from being a punchline to being a victor in two short months. As expected, she won the Ames Straw Poll, although not by as big a margin as some anticipated. The turnout was large at 16,892 votes (up approximately 18 percent over turnout in 2007). The big numbers suggest that the GOP electorate is finally getting engaged in the race. The candidates’ totals were as follows: Bachmann 4,823, Ron Paul 4,671, Tim Pawlenty 2,293, Rick Santorum 1,657, Hermann Cain 1,456, Rick Perry 718, Mitt Romney 567, Newt Gingrich 385 and Jon Huntsman 69. Bachmann demonstrated she can pull together a ground game and appeal to an important segment of the electorate that includes Tea Partyers, social conservatives and home-schoolers. She’s the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses next year in a state that has proven tailor-made for her.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s strong second-place finish suggests just how limited are the predictive powers of the Iowa poll. It is doubtful he will win a single primary or caucus, but he’s quite capable of turning out a discrete batch of highly enthusiastic supporters. The success of a fringe candidate, however, does tend to undermine the importance of the event.     

Pawlenty’s anemic third-place result may signal the demise of a candidate who looked solid on paper but never made a convincing case for himself. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and yet finished less than 600 votes ahead of Santorum, who spent a fraction of what Pawlenty did. Pawlenty may fight on after Ames, but he’s shot his wad of cash and it’s not clear he can run much longer.     

Santorum is one of the surprises here, running on a shoestring budget but claiming a very presentable fourth place. That may be bad news for Bachmann, who will now face in Santorum an energized and perhaps now better funded social conservative. Cain’s fifth-place result is a mild disappointment, suggesting he still hasn’t caught on or developed a first-rate organization.     

Those not in Iowa, Romney and Perry, wisely chose not to compete with Bachmann. Romney’s success in rounding up a batch of voters, even though he did not buy space or speak today, shows the power of his front-runner status. He will presumably be pleased that Bachmann did not run away with the show. 

Gov. Perry, who entered the race today, will be pleased with his result. Not too much should be made of the fact that he grabbed more votes than Romney. Perry’s super-PAC has been spending money and organizing in the state.

Bachmann’s victory, while tempered by Paul’s robust showing, raises the first strategic challenge for Perry. Does he skip the Iowa caucuses altogether, trying to land a knockout blow to Romney in New Hampshire? Or does he skip them both and put all his chips on South Carolina? (The latter is a risky game of delay, one that in 2008 proved disastrous for Rudy Giuliani.)     

The task for Bachmann now is to prove she’s not a Mike Huckabee retread, that is, a dynamic Christian conservative outsider with no appeal beyond core followers. Given the results today, she’ll have to compete with Perry and Santorum for social conservatives. The pressure will now be on her to define her policies, not just herself.     

Still, when all is said and done, the win marks a remarkable journey for the fiery congresswoman. With a win, however, comes higher expectations for a fully articulated agenda and a convincing case for her ability to govern. Her competition is getting stiffer and she’ll need to expand her appeal.