Politics & Policy

Behind Bachmann’s Slide

Why the tea-party star has dimmed.

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.

That group on the bus — advance man Keith Nahigian; press secretary Alice Stewart; her policy guru, Brett O’Donnell, the former debate coach at Liberty University; and other staffers — began to hold greater sway over every detail, from debate prep to messaging. Even on the media front, where Rollins had built valuable relationships, he was overruled. “What people don’t understand is that this was festering all summer,” says one source. “Rollins’s break began before Ames. The group never clicked; disagreements were constant.”

Rollins, for example, wanted Bachmann to sit down with 60 Minutes and a variety of mainstream media commentators and programs. Her Ames win, he told her, was an opportunity to expand beyond her conservative comfort zones, a chance to make her case beyond the usual GOP media circuit. She resisted, according to sources familiar with the situation. Her response was that conservatives watched On the Record w/ Greta Van Susteren and Hannity, so that was where she should be, giving talk-radio interviews in between Fox News hits.

Internal fights, one Bachmann source says, are one thing, but when the candidate didn’t get the Ames bump she expected, anxiety set in — and she let it show. She was “spooked,’ he says, by Gov. Rick Perry’s mid-August entry into the race. “She did lose her confidence for a few weeks,” he says. “She spent a lot of time thinking about Perry’s role in the race, where he fit, and how she should react. I don’t think she ever thought he’d rise so quickly. That surprised all of us.”

Indeed, a day after winning the straw poll, both Bachmann and the Texas governor appeared in Waterloo, speaking to Black Hawk County Republicans at the Electric Park Ballroom, a dusty dance hall. To Rollins’s chagrin, she would not get off of her bus at the event until Perry was finished speaking. Rollins wanted her to go in, embrace Perry, and — with a grin — welcome him, while reminding him that he was late to the party. Bachmann wanted none of it. Instead, she stayed on her bus as Perry ate dinner with local Republicans and gave an upbeat speech.

Only after the lights were adjusted and the music was blaring did she enter the venue. Reporters ate up the drama, wondering aloud on the morning talk shows and in columns whether Bachmann had overplayed her hometown hand. Bachmann’s associates, for the most part, admit that this was a misplayed moment. Other Bachmann advisers who still work for the campaign contest this version of events. “It was a media-created story, nothing more,” says one.

Still, coming off a strong Ames win, Bachmann should have owned the Waterloo event. By staying on the bus, she enabled the press to praise Perry’s performance and his at-ease manner — an unforced error. From that point on things began to fall apart, according to sources close to both former and current staffers. Bachmann spent much of the end of August off the trail, taking a brief vacation with her family, helping two daughters move into their dorm rooms. Perry continued to rise, especially in Iowa, and Bachmann’s operation did little to beef up.

Money also began to dry up. So much had been spent pre-Ames, and to the dismay of her senior advisers, big-dollar backers were not jumping to donate following her straw-poll victory. Her team was divided on her schedule, too — the “bus crew” pushed for Bachmann to keep traveling to New Hampshire, Florida, and South Carolina; Rollins wanted her to operate on a shoestring budget, spending all of her time in Iowa, prepping for the caucuses. “He wanted to pull a Rick Santorum, just setting up shop in Des Moines, never leaving,” says one aide.

By early September, Rollins and Polyansky started to get the message — their all-Iowa focus was not going to win the day. Bachmann liked O’Donnell and Nahigian’s proposal, which kept the focus on Iowa but looked to South Carolina, New Hampshire, and other early states as must-play primaries. The “bus crew” rationale was that if she won Iowa, she’d need to have teams in the other states in order to sustain the campaign. Rollins thought that was foolish. With limited money and time, he said winning Iowa was everything, especially with Perry gaining ground.

Bachmann sensed the trouble in her staff and agreed that she needed a shakeup. But she wanted to fire her fundraisers, blaming them for her fade. Rollins disagreed, saying her advance team and media advisers needed to get disciplined, and that to cut off her money raisers would send a poor message to the donor community. After a couple weeks of related discussions, Rollins and Polyansky knew it was time to leave. They were no longer in any real sense managing the campaign. Polyansky left first, followed by Rollins days later, though he chose to remain with the campaign as a senior, at-large adviser.

Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s top advance man, was tapped to be campaign manager. The rest of the team, the “bus crew,” remained mostly intact, with Alice Stewart and Brett O’Donnell keeping their positions. They remain her top advisers, along with Bachmann’s husband, Marcus. Others jumped ship after Rollins’s departure. Pollster Ed Goeas has resigned. The campaign’s political office in Alexandria, Va., has been closed. Aides Andy Parrish and Doug Sachtleben are returning to her congressional staff.

Bachmann’s current team pushes back on the notion that the campaign is damaged beyond repair, which they know is the chatter in Washington. “In the past eight weeks, the campaign has gone from focusing on the straw poll to winning early primary states,” says one senior adviser. “We have shifted resources in Iowa, and put more into New Hampshire and South Carolina. There is not a D.C. straw poll. All of the stories about what’s happening with our campaign miss what’s actually happening: We’re repositioning. The other stuff is ridiculous.”

“The field is fluid, it’s like a stock market and Romney is the only blue-chip stock,” adds another source close to Bachmann. “Did we expect to be doing better right now? Yes. But there are flavors of the week and we’re still fighting. Herman Cain is doing well now but you should compare his nearly nonexistent Iowa field staff to our own. And sure, he played the Florida straw poll, but we didn’t — because we’ve learned the hard way just how valuable straw polls are.”

Within Bachmann World, this back and forth prevails. Rollins and friends, who have left, are seen as antagonists to the cause, the nonbelievers who didn’t want to help Bachmann build a national machine. Unsurprisingly, the Rollins camp shakes its collective head at the remaining staff, wondering not only why they’re playing in New Hampshire, but how they’ll pay for it. Romney has New Hampshire wrapped up, the Rollins camp says. Bachmann’s current team disagrees. The Rollins camp thinks Bachmann does not need to trumpet her social-conservative record. Her current team is focused on jobs, but don’t mind touting the totality of her résumé.

Bachmann’s own words, more than her staff battles, have also influenced her fall. Post-Ames, she wanted to emerge as the “Romney alternative,” but Perry, a ten-year governor of a major state, offered a compelling alternative not only to Romney, but to Bachmann. Finding a way to take on Perry from the right was her immediate strategy, from targeting his immigration record to his controversial vaccination policies. This handiwork has been effective, a current staffer says, in that she’s damaged Perry’s candidacy more than anyone. Former staffers agree with this, but point out that as she’s stung Perry, she’s hurt herself.

After Rollins left in early September, Bachmann headed to Tampa for another debate and tore into Perry’s vaccination policy, which she claimed damaged “little girls” by testing them for HPV (human papillomavirus). In a Today show interview the following day, she reported that after the debate, a mother “told me that her little daughter took the vaccine” and “suffered from mental retardation thereafter.” Her comments were widely criticized for inflaming the issue. She earned plaudits for slamming Perry on crony capitalism, “but like with so much she does, she took a good thing too far, and made a mess of it,” as one source puts it.

The current campaign staffer says that’s too harsh. “She has not dropped in the polls because of anything this campaign did,” he says. “There is no piece of information, nothing, that has caused us trouble. You can disagree with how she approached something, but unlike Perry’s record, which is a real problem, we haven’t had anything like that.” In other words, the campaign believes that her conservatism remains her strongest asset, whereas Perry and Romney lean most on their respective governing and business experience. In Iowa and other early states, the campaign hopes that Bachmann’s conservatism and House brawls win over on-the-fence Republicans.

Bachmann, though, has been hurt, even her enthusiastic backers admit, by the quiet in Washington. The president’s jobs plan is going nowhere and “there is no chance for her to draw the line in the sand on something,” sighs a supporter. Bachmann led a faction of conservatives on the debt limit, but with no high-profile battles being waged in Washington this fall, her best argument — that she’s the conservative fighting in the Beltway trenches — loses its luster. Knowing little is happening in the House, her team is keeping her on the trail, at town halls and elsewhere, in order to keep her presence and firebrand rhetoric relevant. In coming weeks, she will unveil policy proposals on the economy and jobs, sources say, to keep her in the conversation.

All that is fine, a former staffer says, but probably not enough to keep her in the contest, if she keeps spending and stalls in debates. Not spending enough time in Iowa, he tells me, has been a big mistake. But it’s more than that, he says: She has been hurt, perhaps irreparably, by her lack of a coherent message. “From the beginning, she had a great story, with some great lines about making President Obama a ‘one-term president’ and repealing Obamacare. She hasn’t grown from that, and it’s a shame. She is still repeating the same lines from that June debate, without a Herman Cain-like ‘9-9-9’ economic plan that’s catchy.”

Bad optics, such as being photographed beside cow carcasses at a meat plant, to nodding her head as a voter talked about impeaching the president, have also hurt — implying “at least in the eyes of donors and party leaders, that she is not a serious figure,” the former adviser continues. “And that’s a shame, since she’s a real talent, but it’s not being utilized. The operation, these days, is more like a congressional campaign in Minnesota. And Herman Cain is filling the void she was supposed to fill.” Bachmann, her aides respond, has time to recover. But unless she catches fire in one of the debates — or Perry trips up — that Ames win, and her late-afternoon remarks on the ISU asphalt, may have been the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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