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.”
Bachmann’s Iowa team is confident that she can continue to build — and recognizes that the caucuses are the campaign’s keystone. “She continues to look strong,” says Bachmann supporter Danny Carroll, a former state lawmaker and co-chairman for Mike Huckabee’s caucus-winning 2008 campaign, “Since the straw poll, as one would expect, she has become a higher-profile target, and the entry of Governor Perry has brought in a new dynamic. But if she remains strong and true to her convictions, as pressure begins to mount, she is going to do well.”
State senator Brad Zaun, Bachmann’s Iowa co-chairman, adds that Bachmann got a “big bump” from the straw poll, which he calls a “dress rehearsal” for the caucuses. That said, he recognizes that Bachmann’s campaign will need to adjust, and he notes that the congresswoman is already shaking up her method of campaigning. In her visit to Iowa Wednesday, Bachmann left her big, blue bus in the parking lot and took a car to visit business leaders. “She’s going to be here a lot,” Zaun says, and is open to fiddling with the tempo of her trail stops. In Iowa, he says, Bachmann has learned that at certain times, small, targeted events work better than rallies.
Beyond Iowa, whether Bachmann will have the dollars to take to the air is a looming question. “She needs to parlay her strengths into raising more money,” says Keith Appell, a GOP media consultant who worked on Rick Scott’s successful Florida gubernatorial campaign last year. “She’s been living off the land, building an organization; now she has to separate from Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul and the others, using the attention to raise more, to place television ads in key early primary states, making a play as a top-tier candidate.”
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.
As Bachmann moves forward, much will depend on timing. If she can crest at the right time, likely in late winter as the caucuses approach, politicos see her giving Perry heartburn, potentially winning Iowa, performing credibly in New Hampshire, and then, should Perry win South Carolina, making Florida the race to watch. “A counter-argument about Perry can and will be made on all counts, with time,” says Larry Sabato. “A candidate like Perry has an arc. He’s still climbing. But assuming he peaks this fall, he’ll face some withering attacks. That is the moment at which Romney, Bachmann, and possibly others can stage comebacks.”
And for Bachmann, Sabato says, the comeback is obvious: “It’s like that old American Express commercial: ‘Remember me? I’m still here.’”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.