Last week's Republican debate at Ames, Iowa, and the straw poll Saturday did more than sort out the Republican field for 2012. They have given the nation a close look at a Republican Party that no longer resembles the Bush-McCain model.
Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, who garnered nearly 60 percent of the vote, were among the two dozen House members who voted against the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling. Neither blanched at shutting down the U.S. government.
At the debate, every Republican onstage raised his hand when asked whether he would reject a budget deal in which $10 in spending cuts were offered for every dollar in higher taxes.
This is a party whose feet are set in concrete. The United States government will be downsized and tax rates will rise only over its cold, dead body.
Bachmann's victory was stunning. Every other candidate had been in Iowa organizing before she even got into the race seven weeks ago. Yet she emerged with nearly 5,000 votes, the largest total ever amassed in an Iowa straw poll with the exception of George W. Bush's tsunami in 1999.
Bachmann humiliated and eliminated former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. She is now one of three front-tier candidates for the nomination.
Ron Paul, however, who ran only 150 votes behind Bachmann and doubled the vote of Pawlenty, has not received the credit his tremendous showing deserves. Four years ago, Paul was winning every telephone poll taken after a GOP debate but failing to win, place or show in the primaries. He seemed to be campaigning simply to make his case, realizing that he had no chance of being nominated.
In last week's debate, Paul denounced U.S. wars that are none of America's business, called for closing U.S. bases abroad and bringing our troops home, and squared off against former Sen. Rick Santorum on whether Iran represents a threat.
Santorum and Pawlenty supported confrontation with Iran. Yet together they did not come close to matching Paul's vote tally.
The entry into the race of Texas Gov. Rick Perry has produced another front-tier candidate and complicated the strategic plans of Mitt Romney.
Had Perry not gotten in, Romney might have held to his decision not to make a huge investment in Iowa, let Bachmann or Paul win the state, and then dispatch them in New Hampshire. Today he faces a new situation.
With Perry going into Iowa, the caucuses, from Christmas on, will rivet the nation's attention. If Romney is not there, he will be ignored for that month. And should Perry win Iowa, he would storm into New Hampshire and conceivably overwhelm Romney in his fortress state.
Should Bachmann prove to be a giant killer and defeat Perry in Iowa, she would be a formidable rival to Mitt in New Hampshire and a favorite to beat him in South Carolina.
Yet the entry of Perry and straw poll are not all bad news for Mitt. Pawlenty, who appealed to the same Republicans, is gone. And still in Iowa are Bachmann, Paul, Santorum and Perry, all of whom will be competing for the same social conservative-tea party base.
Which leaves a huge opening for Mitt.
Does he head for Iowa, confront Bachmann and Perry, and win, in which case he is the nominee• Or does he wait for Bachmann or Perry to come into New Hampshire on the momentum of an Iowa victory and try to stop them there?
Upon Mitt's decision may hang his five-year investment in winning the office his father failed to win.
Pat Buchanan is the author of the book "Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War.'"