Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson speaks at a rally for Republican presidential… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — In a surprise move, and a blunt reflection of the shifting fortunes of Republican presidential candidates ahead of the opening vote in the 2012 nominating contest, Michele Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chairman defected Wednesday night to Ron Paul's campaign.
State Sen. Kent Sorenson, a tea party favorite, was hired as a Bachmann staffer in Iowa even before she announced her candidacy. He helped lead her campaign to victory in the Ames straw poll in August. Ever since, however, Bachmann’s popularity has been in decline.
Recent statewide polling shows the Minnesota congresswoman running last among the six Republicans actively competing in Iowa. Paul, meantime, is in tight race with Mitt Romney for first place in Tuesday’s caucuses.
"It's difficult, but it’s the right thing to do," Sorenson said, announcing his decision before a crowd of several hundred at a Veterans for Ron Paul rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.
Sorenson predicted that Paul would be the object of attacks by the Republican establishment in the days ahead, and said he wanted to help defend him.
The Texas congressman welcomed his newest staffer in understated fashion, thanking Sorenson for "stopping by. That was very nice."
The defection of the well-known Republican lawmaker is a severe blow to Bachmann’s struggling campaign.
In a statement released by the Paul campaign, Sorenson said he retained "an immense amount of respect for Michele. The reasons are many. She's never betrayed conservatives on issues like taxes, the right to life, and the 2nd Amendment. So over the past few months, I have been saddened at the dismissive way she's been treated among some conservatives, especially after winning the Iowa straw poll."
But he said that there was a clear top tier in the race for the Republican nomination for president, both here in Iowa and nationally. And Paul, he said, who had backed his own state Senate campaign, was "easily the most conservative of this group."
In a statement, Bachmann responded that Sorenson's defection was "a deliberate move by the Ron Paul campaign to discredit our campaign and growing momentum."
She goes on to say that Sorenson "personally told me he was offered a large sum of money" to work for Paul.
Sorenson, speaking to reporters backstage after the Paul rally ended and the candidate was posing for pictures with supporters, said he had "no idea" why Bachmann asserted that he said he was offered a big paycheck to work for the Texan. He also denied that he told her, "Everyone in Iowa sells out. Why shouldn't I?"
The state senator, who attended a Bachmann event in his district earlier in the day, said he had only exchanged pleasantries with her Wednesday. He had been in talks with her campaign the day before, he said, about his decision to leave.
But, he said, he didn't make up his mind until 10 minutes before he made the announcement onstage at the Paul rally.
He said Bachmann was no longer a top-tier candidate in Iowa and didn't have a chance to stop Romney in the caucuses. Paul, he said, was the only conservative with that opportunity. "It was hard for me to do this," he said. "I love Michele Bachmann."
Sorenson was confronted with the Bachmann campaign statement about his departure as he was speaking with a reporter. He smiled as the statement was read, then trashed it.
At his Des Moines rally Wednesday evening, Paul gave an upbeat assessment of his chances in Iowa.
"I'm encouraged about next week," he told the crowd.
"There is a large number of people, and I think they're coming out of the woodwork. Maybe we see a chance of a real change and it's galvanizing," he said.
But, Paul added, "I don't for a minute think it's going to be easy."