Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll by energizing evangelical conservatives and tea-party activists. Since then, her poll numbers have dipped, leaving some Republicans wondering whether she can remain in the top tier of a crowded primary field. Her challenge, strategists say, is to win the Iowa caucuses — a potential make-or-break contest — while simultaneously building a national campaign. “There is certainly a path for her to win, but it is becoming narrower,” says GOP pollster John McLaughlin. “She has another shot at picking up speed with the Iowa caucuses, but she needs to find another state where she can beat the frontrunners.”
Texas governor Rick Perry’s late-summer entry has complicated Bachmann’s task. “She has been hurt by Perry’s total domination in the news,” says Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Reed, like McLaughlin, thinks Bachmann’s challenge is to figure out a state-by-state strategy to win, one that goes beyond Iowa. “If she wins Iowa, that would be huge — but only the first part,” he says. “She needs to be looking for a second act, perhaps in a mega-state like Florida, which is shaping up to be the deciding primary.”
Since winning the August straw poll, Bachmann has attempted to broaden her campaign, hitting the trail in South Carolina and Florida. Those stump stops, however, have done little to generate national momentum. Perry, meanwhile, has rocketed to the front of the pack, leaving Bachmann scrambling to hold on to her tea-party support. A Gallup poll this week shows tea-party-affiliated Republicans flocking to Perry, who holds a 21-point lead over Bachmann within this bloc.
Among all Republicans, the numbers are similar. A new CNN/ORC International survey shows Bachmann trailing Perry, the poll topper, by 18 points among likely GOP voters. Bachmann, who in the same poll took 12 percent in July, now finds herself in single digits. Even in Iowa, where Bachmann made her splash, Perry is climbing. A Public Policy Polling survey released this week shows Perry with 22 percent support among Iowa Republicans, four points ahead of Bachmann.
Perry’s Iowa rise is particularly troubling for Bachmann — a Waterloo, Iowa, native who has stressed her Hawkeye State roots. She attempted to buck up her ranks Wednesday, campaigning in Iowa for the first time since the straw poll, but some political observers wonder whether it is too late for her to recapture her pre-Perry buzz. “It’s very possible that Bachmann’s moment has simply come and gone,” says Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. As Perry surges, Ron Paul holds his base, and former Bay State governor Mitt Romney raises money, Bachmann needs to win “real contests,” Sabato says — starting with the Iowa caucuses.
Iowa state senator Mark Chelgren, who endorsed Bachmann earlier this summer, urges Bachmann to stop being “so guarded,” in order to rekindle her grassroots support. “The road ahead is getting much more difficult,” he says. “The addition of Rick Perry, and the possible addition of other candidates, is diluting her message substantially. I endorsed her because she has a passionate, articulate message. Do I think that is going to carry her to the nomination? I don’t. I think she has a lot of work still ahead of her to do.”
“Iowa is a key state for Michele,” Chelgren continues. “It’s key for her in a way that it’s not for the other candidates. It’s been written off, for instance, by Mitt Romney.” That leaves an opening for Bachmann, he says — if she can reconnect with conservatives. “For her to win, I think she needs to get back to the basics, be passionate, and realize she’s not the frontrunner. She does much better when she is the underdog.” Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa GOP executive director, agrees. “Instead of hopping on and off the bus, she needs to be getting back into the crowds, building personal relationships, being omnipresent. That’ll insulate her.”