Michele Bachmann’s campaign flameout

December 29, 2011

The rise and fall of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) may well stand as an allegory of the most turbulent GOP presidential primary in memory, one whose latest turn has been bitter and bizarre.

With just days to go before the Iowa caucuses, where a poor finish would almost certainly mean the end of Bachmann’s presidential hopes, the candidate who only months ago led the field here is being all but counted out.

A CNN/Time poll released Wednesday showed her running last among the six serious contenders in Iowa, garnering support from only 9 percent of likely caucusgoers surveyed.

Her story line went from poignant to poisonous on Wednesday night. Bachmann’s own Iowa chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson — who just hours earlier had appeared with her at a campaign event — suddenly turned up onstage at a rally for Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and announced that he was ditching her.

She fired back with an accusation that Sorenson “personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign.”

Then came another twist: Wes Enos, Bachmann’s political director, contradicted his candidate, saying in a statement that Sorenson’s switch “was in no way financially motivated.”

Sorenson issued a statement saying that he “was never offered money from the Ron Paul campaign or anyone associated with them and certainly would never accept any.”

That Bachmann’s once-promising endeavor should end up in such a surreal place speaks to the larger forces that have defined the primary contest.

As recently as August, Iowa Republicans had stood in line for hours outside her tent at the GOP straw poll in Ames — a supposedly significant contest, in which she narrowly edged out Paul.

The three-term congresswoman, whose cable television presence had developed a national following among tea party supporters, was one of the earliest to benefit from insurgent forces in the GOP who were looking for a fresh face and a passionate voice. But she was also one of the first to be left by the wayside when the next big thing — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his candidacy on the day of her straw poll victory — came along.

In part because her rise had come so quickly, Bachmann was ill-equipped to build the kind of durable political and financial infrastructure necessary to sustain her candidacy. Despite solid debate performances, she faded deeper and deeper into the background.

In the past week and a half, she has tried to relight the spark of her summer romance with Iowa voters, although the exercise has looked more like speed-dating.

Over 10 days, Bachmann rolled her big campaign bus into every one of the state’s 99 counties for a quick stop and one last personal appeal. As she arrived, the loudspeakers blared Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Sounding like a fast-talking announcer who rattles off potential side effects at the end of drug commercials, Bachmann got to the point where she could give her stump speech in less than four minutes.

She began her pitch by stressing her Iowa upbringing and, lately, has closed it by comparing herself to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a conservative icon.

“This state is filled with a lot of strong women, and I think we need a new Margaret Thatcher, a new Iron Lady,” she said.

At each stop, with an aide holding a cue card to remind her where she was, Bachmann taped a personalized video appeal to voters of that county, which her social media team plans to distribute with instructions on how to participate in the local caucuses.

It is not the most efficient way to reach and motivate large swaths of the electorate.

Not counting her campaign staff and press contingent, fewer than two dozen people were on hand to hear Bachmann speak at the Family Table Restaurant in Osceola this week. Some of them barely looked up from their lunches.

But Mike Wilson, a truck driver who had come 40 miles from Humeston on his motorcycle, may have been won over.

During the candidate debates, “they kind of shoved her off to the side,” he said. “When they give her a chance to speak, she just walks all over them. She grows 10 feet tall.”

Wilson had come mostly in hopes of snagging an autograph for his wife, a Bachmann fan. However, he was still uncertain whether he would caucus for the congresswoman on Tuesday. He planned to go home and talk it over with his wife.

An hour earlier, Bachmann had drawn a capacity crowd of about 20 at the aptly named Dinky Diner in Decatur. That included a vacationing family of three from Texas, who just happened to see Bachmann’s bus and decided to follow it.

Dinky Diner owner Jacky Kuster counted herself among Bachmann’s supporters. But whether she is willing to devote an evening to the caucuses is another question.

“By the time I get through working, it’s time to go home,” she said.

As Bachmann prepared to conclude her bus tour on Thursday, she held a news conference to underscore her determination to stay in the race. Her own observations on the road, she said, suggest that the polls have it all wrong.

“What we have seen is an outpouring of momentum . . . unlike anything we have ever seen,” she said.

That was probably not the choice of words she intended.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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