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.
#ad#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.)
#page#While much of Bachmann’s rhetoric treads a narrow tightrope between fiery and over the top, she does not always land on the right side. Trying to translate the debt into a more human analogy, she talks dramatically about how she and her husband, Marcus, would react if they spent 43 percent more than they earned in one paycheck period. “We would handcuff ourselves because we don’t want to go to the poorhouse,” Bachmann says earnestly. “We don’t want to go into bankruptcy. We don’t want to see the sheriff come in our house and take our furniture out and put it out on the end of the driveway and see our kids have to beg for milk.”
And while Bachmann has notably refused to engage in a war of words with the media (she almost entirely ignored the unflattering Newsweek cover depicting her as “The Queen of Rage”), she offers little access to reporters. At the seven Bachmann events I attend over a few days in Iowa, there is a press availability at only one. Bachmann gives a statement, and then, reading off a slip of paper, proceeds to call on three outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NBC News. Ignoring the rest of the reporters present, she leaves immediately after answering NBC’s query.
#ad#But Bachmann also possesses unusual strengths. For one thing, her social-conservative credentials are impeccable. “I support her values, the fact that she’s a wonderful Christian woman,” says Kathy Heyveld, a Pella, Iowa, resident dressed in an autographed Bachmann T-shirt adorned with a Bachmann pin. “I love her values, and I love her strength,” remarks Kimberly Coates, a stay-at-home mom who brought her three young children to Bachmann’s speech in Pella. “I really liked that she’s pro-life and she’s about the family and marriage between a man and a woman.”
Bachmann is also generally a smart presenter, dishing up her austere proposals with a dollop of warmth. Speaking about Social Security and Medicare, she is fond of noting that she wants to make it “crystal clear” that she does not want to touch current retirees’ benefits. At one function, she talks concernedly about meeting jittery Iowa seniors who were talking about canceling their credit cards and Internet service because they were afraid their Social Security checks would be cut.
Of course, Bachmann’s feistiness — that quality that made her the darling of cable-news bookers — remains. She is not shy about her willingness to be a fighter. “I’ve given Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi a run for their money during my time there,” she says of her years in the House. “Many of the journalists write that I’m Barack Obama’s chief critic. I take that as a badge of honor. Nancy Pelosi made me about her number-one target to defeat last year. That’s probably about the best endorsement I could have.”
“Just to spite her,” Bachmann adds mischievously, “I won.”
But she also presents an empathetic side. “I know how decimating high taxes are to businesses and individuals and families. I get it,” she says, talking about her experience running a small business with her husband. When she talks about her fears about how Medicare’s future insolvency could impact her 80-year-old mother, her hand hovers over her heart. Audiences respond. One woman, watching Bachmann work her way down a crowd, trying to greet as many as possible, marvels to me, “It shows that she cares.” (Unfortunately for that woman, Bachmann ultimately cuts across to the bus before she has greeted everyone at this particular event.)
One incident that highlights Bachmann’s empathy is a question at the Indianola town hall from Jim Dawson. Dawson, a middle-aged, heavy-set man in a plaid shirt, his white undershirt visible at the collar, is by the edge of the seats, and Bachmann hops off the stage to go near him.
After saying he has owned a small business for 24 years, Dawson, voice cracking a little, asks, “Why are we giving all the tax breaks to multi-, multi-million dollar corporations, to oil companies that are making tens of billions dollar a quarter — not a year, but a quarter — and I don’t understand. . . . Why aren’t we cutting some of the tax breaks that are given to the wealthy?” He says he cannot grasp why, with revenues falling so short of spending, the government can’t try to increase revenues via some tax hikes that don’t impact middle-class or low-income Americans.
When he finishes his question, Bachmann says simply, “Tell me about your business.”
He does so, talking about his metal-fabricating business and his five employees. She listens.
#page#When Bachmann answers, she talks about reforming the tax code so that subsidies are on the table for elimination. She speaks about the need for all businesses to pay their fair share. When Dawson follows up with a question about Social Security and Medicare being eliminated, she, after assuring him it won’t impact current retirees, starts talking policy realties, such as how Medicare will be bankrupt in nine years if nothing is done.
Her follow-up — “Tell me about your business” — was perfect: Anyone could hear in Dawson’s voice that he just needed to talk. Bachmann did not appear to have swayed Dawson’s mind by the end of their back and forth, but her willingness to listen showcased her shrewd campaigning instincts.
#ad#Sharing space with that frequently mentioned “titanium spine” is a joyous spark. Shaking hands after the Indianola event, Bachmann leans toward one man. “What’s your name?” she asks. Whatever he says is enough: She squeals (there is no other word for it) “I know you!” and dives into a hug with him. After delivering her speech at the party held next to the campaign’s tent at Ames the night before the straw poll, Bachmann starts dancing, jiving to Elvis. She lifts up her arms and claps them above her head, swaying her hips back and forth. She looks like she’s just having fun, with no trace of awkwardness. (It is mind-exploding to imagine Mitt Romney doing a similar dance.) A few beats later, Marcus joins her onstage, and the two of them swing dance during the rest of the song. Bachmann, after telling a nostalgic story about how much her mom’s popcorn balls meant to her as a child, then, with some family members’ help, tosses out popcorn balls to the audience. Afterwards, she is inundated with requests to autograph the labels on the popcorn balls’ wrapping.
“You can’t do better than Elvis,” Bachmann tells that crowd at Ames, a group that patiently waited for her for an hour. Tomorrow, thanks to these people and thousands more, she will win the straw poll.
Alluding to the song playing, Bachmann then says, “And it’s time to go to the promised land!”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.