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U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) narrowly edged fellow fiscal conservative Ron Paul (R-Texas) in the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday – scoring for herself an early victory in the march toward Iowa’s 2012 caucus election.

Bachmann finished with 4,823 out of a total 16,892 votes cast – just ahead of Paul’s 4,671 votes.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty finished a distant (and disappointing) third with 2,293 votes.

(To view the unofficial results of the straw poll, click here).

What do we make of these numbers? Not all that much, really.

Remember – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (who finished sixth in this year’s poll) won the Ames Straw Poll in 2007 … and then went on to lose the Iowa caucus five months later to Mike Huckabee … who went on to lose the Republican nomination to John McCain … who went on to lose the general election to Barack Obama.

So yeah … it’s not an anointing or anything.

Also Texas Gov. Rick Perry – the newest entry into the GOP race – didn’t participate in the poll. Nor did former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who hasn’t ruled out a 2012 presidential bid.

Still, the solid performances turned in by Bachmann and Paul – who at this point are the two strongest fiscal conservatives in the race – should be encouraging to Republicans who are eager for a candidate to walk the walk on tax and spending issues.

On the other hand, the results could very well be the death knell of Pawlenty’s campaign – which bet the farm on a solid performance in the straw poll and still dramatically underperformed. Already struggling to raise money, Pawlenty will now find it even harder to convince donors to support his bid – which was once viewed as the most credible GOP alternative to Romney.

Pic: via Daylife