Behind Bachmann’s Slide
Why the tea-party star has dimmed.


Robert Costa

On August 13, as dusk settled upon Iowa State University, Michele Bachmann hopped onto a makeshift stepstool beside her bus. Her supporters crowded close, pressing against a flimsy rope. Bachmann, clad in an ivory-colored suit and pearls, raised both arms. Gray-haired retirees, teenage volunteers, and sign-toting pastors cheered their champion, the winner of the Ames straw poll. “Now it’s on to all 50 states,” she told them, her right hand punching the air.

Two months later, Bachmann’s late-summer dream has largely evaporated, and her presidential campaign — even in Iowa — is tottering. Senior advisers have departed, her cash has dwindled, and her poll numbers have dipped. The tea-party star has dimmed.

In conversations with her inner circle, past and present, explanations for the post-Ames fade vary. Some blame her diminished candidacy on staff dysfunction; most cite her inexperience. Her boosters argue that it’s the rise of others, not a Bachmann mistake, that’s leveled the field. But something, almost all acknowledge, has been lost — be it energy, stature, or confidence.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When the 55-year-old congresswoman entered the race, at a June CNN debate in New Hampshire, she was welcomed, by both Republicans and members of the press, as a must-watch contender. In previous months, the GOP primary had become monotonous. Bachmann’s presence enlivened it. She was a Capitol Hill rabble-rouser, but as she repeatedly reminded us, also a businesswoman, attorney, wife, mother, and foster parent.

It was a fresh, compelling narrative. Within days, following her able debate debut, Bachmann surged. By mid-June, she placed second in Rasmussen’s national poll behind Mitt Romney. In Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses, her numbers exploded. By mid-July, she had become the Hawkeye State frontrunner, leading by 13 points, according to a Magellan survey; up by four points according to a Mason-Dixon poll. “Everything seemed possible,” recalls one confidant, wistfully. “We were the biggest story in American politics.”

Bachmann’s campaign, eager to capitalize, eyed the Ames straw poll. Some senior advisers predicted she could pad her lead there, knock off fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, and cast her candidacy as the credible “Romney alternative.” Not everyone in Bachmann’s orbit, however, thought this was the smart play. Winning Ames, as one former associate explains, costs millions. For the fledgling effort of a House member, pouring cash into a straw poll and hoping for a political payoff was, at best, risky. Lose it and you could be finished; win it, and you have momentum, but less money, a harsher spotlight, and no tangible electoral gain.

Bachmann shrugged off such concerns, aides say. She would gun for the straw poll. As a Waterloo native, she wanted to make a splash, and had little interest in keeping her campaign on low simmer through the summer, raising money and making policy speeches, hoping for an autumn rise. Ed Rollins, the campaign manager at the time, argued with her about this, asking her to reconsider her Ames emphasis. But she won out, so Rollins and his deputy, David Polyansky, began to coordinate an Iowa strategy, centered on outreach to evangelical voters.

Bachmann, a prolific congressional fundraiser, soon transferred money from her House account to help bolster her pre-Ames campaign. Rollins leased a large, navy blue bus in which she could crisscross the state. By early August, she was cruising, a top-tier Ames contender. Her tea-party and evangelical base swelled, rivaling the ranks behind Texas congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian hero with deep support in southern and western Iowa.

By that August afternoon, when Bachmann finally beat Paul in Ames (albeit by a slim margin), it was supposed to be, as she said, the start of something big. Yet as the crowds rallied at ISU, internally, the campaign was in disarray, with nonstop infighting. Bachmann’s message, her policy positions, early-state plans, media strategy — everything became a quarrel. The senior-staff rift over Ames, which started as a fracture, widened into a gulf, with Polyansky and his on-the-ground political team operating separately from Bachmann’s on-the-bus sphere.

Rollins, still the campaign manager, was torn: He was reluctant to fire senior staff and upset Bachmann, but knew the campaign was collapsing. By late August, the campaign staff was far from a cohesive unit, multiple sources say. Publicly, Bachmann was coasting, a rising candidate, but inside, it was a disaster — a nonstop battle between the “bus crew” and her paid consultants. Rollins grew increasingly exasperated with Bachmann’s decisions; the others told the congresswoman not to sweat the former Reagan strategist’s off-site demands.