Yet playing nationally will entail more than cash, media coverage, and an Iowa bounce. Republican strategists say Bachmann also needs to fine-tune her message — sharpening her policy proposals in order to attract on-the-fence conservatives, who are looking for comprehensive solutions to national problems. Bachmann, for her part, is doing what she can to develop this aspect of her candidacy. Earlier this week in Florida, she sketched out an energy plan, talking up her pro-drilling, anti-bureaucracy ideas. “The radical environmentalists have demanded that we lock up all our energy resources,” she said. “President Bachmann will take that key out of the door.”
That speech, Scott Reed says, is an encouraging sign that Bachmann is aware of what she needs to do to sustain her candidacy. But it’s not the only thing. Bachmann, he adds, must also use the upcoming debates, in which Perry will be onstage for the first time, to differentiate herself from Perry. Her turn at CNN’s New Hampshire forum in June, where she announced her candidacy, helped make her a contender, he says, and she needs to “step up” and turn in another “boffo” performance, underscoring her “substance, biography, and conservatism.”
She’ll have that chance soon. On Labor Day, she’ll attend a debate hosted by Sen. Jim DeMint in South Carolina, and early next week she’ll head to the Reagan library for the NBC News/Politico debate. Tea-party conservatives, says Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, will be watching closely to see how Bachmann responds to Perry and the new shape of the race. “She has shown the ability to turn the debates to her advantage,” he says. She can do it again, he predicts, but urges her to “stay connected to the zeitgeist” — stressing fiscal issues — and avoid becoming ensnared in social-conservative scuffles.
“I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions,” cautions Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, an influential conservative group. “People still take her seriously as a candidate. Whoever is leading the polls one day doesn’t always end up winning. There are a lot of debates to come. She has already proven herself to be a capable and hardworking campaigner.” Among tea-party activists, he says, she has already garnered respect.