Whither Michele Bachmann?

That’s the question the Republican political class is asking itself: why the Minnesota congresswoman — who seemed primed to emerge as a major figure in the quest for the party’s presidential nomination after her Iowa straw-poll win last month — seems to have slipped backward.

Even her campaign acknowledges that she is on the outside looking in at a developing two-man contest between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

“The Perry-Romney race is now the story, with us the third candidate,” said Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s campaign manager.

Where to place blame for Bachmann’s fade is an open question.

Rollins argues that having Perry enter the race on the same day that Bachmann won the Ames poll — a traditional early organizational test in the Hawkeye State — and having former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty drop out the following day effectively stepped on her momentum.

One Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of Bachmann’s candidacy, was far less charitable.

“She temporarily scratched the itch of grass-roots conservatives in Iowa looking for the new ‘it’ kid in the field they felt was lacking,” said the GOP operative, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. The source added that Perry “completely sucked the energy out of her campaign” after Ames.

Polling bears out Bachmann’s struggles to capi­tal­ize on Ames. The latest national Gallup poll put Perry in front, with 29 percent, followed by Romney at 17 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 13 percent. Bachmann placed fourth at 10 percent, stuck — statistically, at least — in the same place she was in a July Gallup poll. (She took 13 percent in that survey.)

Even more troubling for Bachmann is that Perry has clearly emerged as the favorite of tea party activists. In the latest Gallup poll, he took 35 percent among self-identified tea party supporters while Bachmann and Romney each took 14 percent.

Although Bachmann has seen her star eclipsed in recent weeks, Rollins argued that the next 40 (or so) days will afford her a chance to reestablish her prominence.

“The six debates in the next six weeks will test Governor Perry and give us a chance to recapture some of the attention,” he said.

Rollins added that with Congress returning to Washington after Labor Day, Bachmann’s “role in fighting the runaway spending will give her many media opportunities.”

That political gauntlet will begin Wednesday with a debate at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. It will continue with two Florida debates — one on Sept. 12 in Tampa, the other Sept. 22 in Orlando — and a Washington Post/Bloomberg candidate forum Oct. 11 in New Hampshire.

Bachmann’s challenge in the debates is twofold: peel tea party support away from Perry by making the case that she is the more down-the-line conservative, while working to expand her support beyond that base by demonstrating that she could beat President Obama next fall.

The first task is the easier of the two. Keep Conservatives United, a Bachmann-aligned super-PAC, is already on the air in South Carolina hitting Perry for his spending record as governor, a line of attack Bachmann is likely to pursue in the debates.

Tackling the electability issue will be far tougher for her. Even among the most conservative elements of the Republican Party, there is a considerable focus on nominating someone who can take advantage of Obama’s vulnerabilities. For many Republican base voters, Perry is Bachmann 2.0; he has her same aggressive conservative approach and, according to early polls, runs far more competitively against the president.

The next six weeks will be make-or-break for Bachmann. By mid-October, we should know whether she has a second act in the race or is just a second-tier candidate.

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