Rick Perry was working the tables here Sunday night, mobbed by Iowa Republicans and the media pack, as the strains of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” blared somewhat discordantly on the public address system.

Partway across the floor of the Electric Park Ballroom on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress, he paused to recall the last time he had been in Iowa, which was as part of a Republican Governors Association tour several years ago. “The reception was a little different the last time,” he said with a smile. “This is quite good.”

That was the understatement of the evening as the Texas governor and newly minted candidate for president arrived for his debut visit to the state with the nation’s first presidential caucuses. Waterloo might be Rep. Michele Bachmann’s home town, but Perry approached the crowd as if it were all his, which of course he hopes will be the case by next winter’s caucuses.

Sunday provided Iowans with their first opportunity to compare directly the two Republican candidates whose performances dominated the most significant weekend of Campaign 2012 and who have injected genuine energy and excitement into a race that has been notably lacking in both.

The optics favored Perry. He arrived early. He mingled and schmoozed, wrapping his arms around the backs of the Iowa activists, leaning in to share a word, introducing his handsome family, shedding his suit coat for the questions and answers.

In the space of a few minutes, he mentioned his boyhood connections to 4-H and the Boy Scouts and his later service as an Air Force pilot. His remarks had the makings of an effective stump speech, especially for someone so new to the presidential trail.

He sat and politely listened to the other speakers, who included both Bachmann and another GOP rival, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, as well as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. When the program ended, he quickly exited out the back, his security force helping to shield him from the shouted questions of reporters.

Bachmann arrived late, just minutes before her scheduled speech, preceded by the thumping beat of Elvis’s “Promised Land,” which always marks the arrival of her big blue bus. On stage, she acknowledged the presence of the Lincoln impersonator but not Perry or Santorum. She spoke of heart and home, of family reunions and Iowans dancing at the ballroom. She rooted herself in Iowa.

She finished with flair, offering an apple pie to the oldest person in the audience. That turned out to be 100-year-old Mary Canfield. Bachmann signed scores of autographs and then, before leaving, answered three questions from the press. She did not deviate from her talking points.

It was no surprise that the Bachmann-Perry encounter in Waterloo generated so much interest and anticipation. Perry’s entry Saturday has reshuffled the field. If he lives up to the advance hype, he could provide a stiff challenge to Mitt Romney, the apparent front-runner. Bachmann’s victory in the Ames straw poll validated her as a conservative force to be reckoned with. For now she is the person to beat in Iowa.

How long this lasts, no one can say. There is little doubt, however, that Republicans now could face a bruising nomination contest, one that will settle several important questions about the state of the party. Among them: just how dominant the tea party wing of the party is in dictating not just the terms of the debate but the winner, as well as how much electability will trump passion and conviction in the voters’ minds.

The conviction candidates were the ones on stage in Waterloo on Sunday. Both Bachmann and Perry offer a purer strain of conservatism than does Romney. But is either better positioned to defeat President Obama, who arrived in Iowa on Monday on his Midwest bus tour, than the former governor of Massachusetts, who has run his campaign around the single message of “jobs”?

Perry highlighted economic issues and electability, signaling his intention to challenge Romney on both. “Making sure that we have a candidate that can beat Barack Obama in November is the most important thing we do,” he said, “and it’s got to be somebody that understands and knows how and has had job creation experience in their background.”

Bachmann appealed to those who want a candidate who has vigorously and publicly fought Obama on every policy front and who even bucked her party’s leadership and a majority of the Republicans in the House in opposing the debt ceiling compromise. She is determined to let no one outflank her on the anti-Obama message.

Perry displayed some of the attributes of a preacher on stage Sunday night, walking away from the lectern, leaning into the audience, waving his arms and modulating his voice for emphasis.

He told the story of the long courtship of his wife Anita — they were married 16 years after their first date — as a prelude to assuring the audience that he is anything but a reluctant candidate. “Sometimes it kind of takes me a while to get into something, like this presidential race, but let me tell ya, when I’m in, I’m in all the way.” As he hit those last notes, he did a knee-bend for emphasis.

The Texas governor told me that while he plans to run hard everywhere, he intends to devote all the time to Iowa that Iowans have come to expect of a presidential candidate — and emphasized that he thinks he has attributes that will bring him success with the voters here.

He said he will campaign the way he did when he was Texas agriculture commissioner back in the 1990s: “Going to a lot of small towns. Going to a lot of picnics. Going to a lot of fairs and what have you. We’ll spend a lot of time in Iowa.”

He will need to do that to get around Bachmann. He might have his sights set on Romney, but he cannot ignore the Minnesota congresswoman. She has shown real discipline as a candidate, and toughness as well. Underestimated from the start, she has already far exceeded expectations.

Ed Rollins, her campaign manager, said Sunday night the campaign team knows that, having had success already, the expectations will continue grow. The next round of debates, he said, will be an important test for her to move her campaign to another level.

Sunday night’s show in Waterloo gave Republicans a taste of what’s coming. For Perry it was an impressive introduction. For Bachmann it was a homecoming to savor and a night to say thank you. For everyone watching, it was a hint of the collision that is coming in the months ahead.

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