Indianola, Iowa — About 60 people sit on folding chairs in a parking lot adjoining a mostly empty sports bar. The entire neighborhood looks tired, like it has seen better days and is hanging on to respectability by a taut thread. The candidate is already 20 minutes late to this town hall, which was slated for a quarter to noon.
Then, just like that, we’re not in Kansas (or Iowa) anymore.
The music shifts from marching-band-style tunes to Elvis. A few beats later, the Bachmann campaign bus becomes visible. It slowly pulls into the parking lot, parking in a position such that it will be right behind Michele Bachmann as she speaks. After a pack of staffers and family amble out of the bus, Bachmann swings on out, waving and radiantly smiling, her presence revitalizing the atmosphere.
Much of Bachmann’s speech consists of her usual tropes: railing against Obamacare, touting her sustained opposition to any debt-ceiling hike, and stressing the importance of the 2012 election. She stands on a platform surrounded by a circle of supporters and answers a handful of questions afterwards.
When Bachmann stops speaking, the Elvis music resumes. Supporters swarm around Bachmann, who wears a knee-length, black sleeveless dress that swings a little when she moves. Trailing her at several events, I learn this pandemonium is the norm. Every time, getting Bachmann back on the campaign bus is akin to smuggling Justin Bieber out of a high school. The bus may be only feet away, but there are always plenty of people begging for her to take a photo with them, shake their hands, or sign an autograph.
Due to the crush, Bachmann usually walks with staffers or family members on either side. Bachmann has incredible presence, but up close, her diminutive stature — 5′2″ and slight — makes it clear that overexcited fans could inadvertently overwhelm her. The campaign employs a rope, extended from the front of the bus to about the midway point, to clear Bachmann a path for the last few feet so that the crowd cannot block her from the bus entrance.
Between the raucous music and Bachmann’s charisma, the campaign events have a tendency to feel like a movie montage: quick, upbeat, and potentially (depending on election outcomes) transformational feel-good segments set to music. In Iowa now, Bachmann is delivering on that feeling: She is a rock star who just won the Ames Straw Poll. But can she maintain that momentum?
Not all is perfect in Bachmann-land. On the day I follow her, the eve of the straw poll, she is late by up to an hour for every single event. (Driving between two of the events, I pass the campaign bus idling by a farm field.) When Bachmann arrives at the state fair half an hour late to deliver a speech at the Des Moines Register soapbox, where many of her GOP rivals have already delivered speeches, she speaks for two and a half minutes. Many in the crowd appear miffed. Grumbling begins. Some had been waiting for an hour. None, it seems, anticipated a speech so short. Other candidates, I overhear, spoke for 15 minutes.
Her near-perfect message discipline also has the potential to backfire. “I’m a real person. I’m authentic,” Bachmann told ABC’s This Week Sunday. But Paula Kuhfus, a veterinarian who attended the party Bachmann threw the night before the straw poll, tells me Bachmann is sometimes “too polished.”
“I like her, but I think sometimes she’s not real.” Kuhfus says, noting she is also considering supporting Rick Perry. “I think she looks like a Stepford Wife when you ask her a question. She doesn’t blink!”
On Thursday night’s debate, Tim Pawlenty charged that Bachmann had “a record of misstating and making false statements.” He is not the only one to make that critique, and Bachmann is clearly being vigilant to avoid any new misstatements. “You know, I’ve been told — I haven’t checked this out, but I’ve been told — that Canada’s corporate tax rate is 15 percent,” she tells the group in Pella, Iowa. (The corporate-tax rate in Canada is currently 16.5 percent, although it is slated to go down to 15 percent in 2012.)