Bachmann may struggle in Palin’s shadow
In Iowa’s conservative circles, Michele Bachmann’s name seemed to be on everyone’s lips last week.
With a GOP presidential field that has left voters wanting more, the provocative “tea party” favorite arrived Friday seemingly well positioned to snap up supporters of 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee after he declined to run for 2012. Her visit here to attend several GOP fundraisers and private meetings with activists generated a flurry of speculation that the Minnesota congresswoman would enter the race earlier than expected.
But Bachmann’s visit also showed how her ambitions have been complicated by another charismatic firebrand from the right: Sarah Palin.
Over cocktails at the Polk County GOP fundraiser Thursday, much of the party gossip had shifted to deciphering Palin’s latest moves — including reports that she has purchased an Arizona home that could serve as a 2012 base, and her bus tour beginning Sunday in the Washington, D.C., area. The attention came at the expense of Bachmann, who had been scheduled to appear but was kept in Washington by House votes.
Even before the latest Palin boomlet, interviews with voters across Iowa suggested that despite their starkly different backgrounds and resumes, Bachmann may labor in Palin’s shadow whether the former Alaska governor ends up running or not.
Although many GOP voters here list Bachmann among their top choices — praising her “titanium spine,” as one put it, her ability to electrify conservatives and her willingness to take on members of her own party — many also admitted they were uneasy about the possibility that she would face the same harsh trajectory as Palin, who within a matter of months went from the party’s fresh face to one of most polarizing politicians in the country.
David Countryman, a retired electronics technician from Monticello, said though he admires Bachmann, he is more likely to support one of the other candidates because “they’ll do to her what they did to Sarah Palin.”
“They’ll chew her up — run her through the sheller,” he said, referring to the farming tool that separates corn from the cob.
In a year when conservatives are hungry to oust President Obama, that prospect has created hesitation for voters like grocery cashier Carla Sams.
“I like what [Bachmann] has to say, but I think we need a very strong male candidate in order to defeat him [Obama],” said Sams, a 51-year-old independent from Anamosa. “I wouldn’t mind having a woman president, but I don’t think this is the election. After what happened to Sarah Palin, I don’t think the country is ready.”
With Palin’s moves an unwelcome distraction this week, Bachmann and the other candidates soldiered ahead with their efforts. Bachmann told reporters she was hiring staff in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — all early states — and would make an announcement regarding her candidacy in her birthplace of Waterloo next month. The decision, she said, would be “independent of what any other candidates decide.”
Asked Friday about the parallels some voters have drawn between herself and Palin, Bachmann said they would come to understand that she is “a unique individual” with experience as a tax attorney and “job creator.”
“I think people see that I’m a substantive person, and a serious person,” she said in a brief interview, listing other accomplishments that include helping found a K-12 charter school and raising five children, as well as taking in 23 foster children. “People see that I’ve been very successful in the endeavors that I’ve done, and I think more than anything they know that I’m a fighter and I’ve done exactly what I’ve said I was going to do and they can count on me.”
“Quite honestly,” she added, after stepping into her van and blocking an attempt by her aides to shut the door on reporters, “the only comparison that I’m concerned about is the one with Barack Obama, and I think that’s one that is a very favorable comparison.”
But Iowa GOP strategist Steve Grubbs said that although Bachmann and her aides may dismiss the parallels, the reality is that “Palin and Michele Bachmann fill much of the same space in the political world.” Until Palin decides, he said, “it may create a drag” on Bachmann’s hopes of taking flight here.
At the lush Davenport Country Club on Friday, however, Bachmann brought members of the Scott County Republican Party to their feet after a folksy speech in which she accused Obama of sending “a signal of weakness to the world” and vowed that she would not rest until Congress repeals his healthcare program.
“I think we’re all in agreement that this guy has got to go,” Bachmann told her audience. “The question is which tough hombre or hombriette will take on our president in 2012.... We need to have a strong, bold, constitutional conservative who has a record of fighting, of doing what they say and saying what they mean, who doesn’t have a history of dancing around the edges.”
Bachmann’s first question came from 86-year-old Gina Lantzky of Bettendorf, who told the would-be candidate: “You made my blood boil.”
In an interview, Lantzky said she meant that as a compliment and liked that Bachmann was “more passion than politics.” But the former Romney supporter said she wasn’t ready to commit.
In a field that is still taking shape, Republican strategists see a clear opening for Bachmann. With her staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage, they say, she could clearly appeal to a big cache of GOP caucus-goers who put a priority on social issues (though she will be competing with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, among others, for those votes). Her popularity among tea party activists and her hard line on spending and fiscal issues may help her broaden her base of support.
Still, like Obama four years ago, Bachmann would face significant hurdles convincing voters that her experience — less than three terms in the House and a stint in the Minnesota Statehouse — qualifies her for the Oval Office.
Bob Vander Plaats, a 2010 Iowa gubernatorial candidate who heads The Family Leader, a conservative group, said Bachmann’s biggest test would be whether voters leave her events thinking they’ve just been to “a great pep rally” or envisioning her in the White House.
“It’s one thing to champion issues,” he said. “Can you be the leader of the free world — that’s the connection point she needs to make.”