Michele Bachmann showed up an hour late to sell herself to voters gathered at the town library the other day. Some had already walked out of the stuffy conference room, peeved at the presidential candidate’s tardiness. But those who remained sat enthralled as she illustrated the federal deficit on a whiteboard, writing out a trail of zeros to illustrate the enormity of the nation’s debt and delivering a fiery indictment of President Obama.
Only after she finished her remarks and was posing for pictures did the Minnesota congresswoman remember her plea: “Don’t forget about the straw poll!”
The event crystallized Bachmann’s perilous perch as her campaign nears the August straw poll in Ames. Since officially entering the presidential contest last month, she has soared in the polls and charmed audiences on the campaign trail. But in the moment of her greatest strength, Bachmann is also starkly vulnerable as she attempts to transform from a niche candidate favored by a sliver of the GOP electorate into a plausible general election competitor.
Bachmann now faces critical tests — increased scrutiny of her record and the potential entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who could present stiff competition for the “tea party” activists and socially conservative voters who power Bachmann’s effort. And, in less than three weeks, there is Ames, for her a vital early test of campaign organization. Many political insiders in Iowa say expectations have risen so high for Bachmann that she must win or be branded a failure.
“She is teetering dangerously close to that edge, if she has not gone over the cliff yet,” said one unaligned Republican operative who spoke anonymously to protect relations with the candidate.
Bachmann is clearly trying to make the leap from cable TV grenade-thrower. Although still defiantly opposing a hike in the nation’s debt ceiling, she is otherwise toning down her rhetoric — when discussing her anti-abortion views, she paused to say she didn’t mean to condemn women who have had an abortion. She made similar conciliatory remarks about Muslims and China, two targets this year of GOP campaigns.
And her campaign, too, is trying to convey the image of general election juggernaut rather than understaffed primary campaign. Her events tend to be lush — expensive and well-produced with professional lights and sound. They are also tightly managed: In Muscatine, a staffer kicked out a supporter of Texas Rep. Ron Paul who was subtly handing out a flier comparing their congressional records.
Yet going into the Aug. 13 straw poll, there is no question that she has ground to make up. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been campaigning for months here, faces a do-or-die test and is blanketing Republican households with fliers and phone calls and busing supporters to the event site in order to boost his numbers. Paul’s acolytes are also expected to turn out in force.
With a fervor that has hardened since earlier this month, Bachmann’s campaign is ratcheting up its effort to draw supporters to Ames. Her staffers are signing up voters who attend her events, plugging their phone numbers and email addresses into iPads. Republican households are receiving unsolicited emails from Bachmann asking them to “meet me in Ames.” The campaign is also paying the $30 entry fee for supporters to attend.
But the contest is not for the faint-hearted, as it takes place partly outdoors in triple-digit heat and competes with the hugely popular state fair and a well-attended sweet corn festival nearby. And while voters are receptive to Bachmann’s small-government message, many said it was too early to decide.
“She’s a great speaker. I love all of her ideas.... We need to live within our means,” said Melissa Steinke, 47, pulling a small notebook from her handbag to check her notes after hearing Bachmann speak in a gilded hotel ballroom in Davenport. “Fiscal conservative, peace through strength, social conservative.”
Still, the stay-at-home mom said she needed to see more candidates.
The campaign, meantime, is trying to knock down expectations.
“Keep in mind, we’ve only been in for a month,” said spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “There are others who have been here for more than a year that have an advantage.”
Pawlenty and Bachmann’s competition has quickened in recent days. He has begun challenging Bachmann directly, arguing that she is inexperienced, inaccurate and unprepared to be president. Bachmann ignored her home-state rival for a while but then assailed his record.
Bachmann does have two pools of supporters who are potent forces in Iowa politics — home-schoolers and evangelicals. Both helped push former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to a surprise first place in the caucuses in 2008, and Bachmann has been assiduously courting them.
She is going beyond the typical mega-churches that garner political attention, worshiping Sunday at a small Marion church that has never before been visited by a presidential candidate. The congregation was rapt as she concluded her remarks with prayer, incorporating the roaring thunder and driving rain outside into her words.
Bachmann, who home-schooled her five children, has been courting such families for months and recently hired a veteran home-school political activist who helped drive Huckabee’s surge.
Constance Cavanaugh, a home-schooling mother of three, is the sort of voter Bachmann needs. The 47-year-old had heard about Bachmann but was undecided until she saw the congresswoman speak at a GOP dinner in Oskaloosa. She now plans to attend the straw poll to side with Bachmann.
“She’s very knowledgeable, yet not hoity-toity,” said the Ottumwa resident. “She’s got what it takes to get the job done.”
But many political strategists and voters are in wait-and-see mode. They suggest that her campaign has held too many made-for-TV events — going to county fairs where the candidate coos over children while the shutters snap — rather than those in which she interacts with voters. On a recent swing, Bachmann tried to allay those criticisms, regularly taking questions and greeting every voter who waited to see her. But some still wonder.
“She’s got some interesting stuff, but I think she needs to mature a little bit, from what I’ve seen, and not engage her mouth quite as fast,” said Roger Lutes, 50, a Gilman farmer who attended the Marshalltown event. He is undecided — and open to Perry, if he runs, or others. He was particularly irked by Bachmann’s tardiness, which her campaign said was caused by plane trouble. “She should be on time.”