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In Iowa, can Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann cruise on celebrity?

July 22, 2011|By James Oliphant
  • GOP candidate Michele Bachmann speaks to Norwalk, Iowa, residents during a backyard event.
GOP candidate Michele Bachmann speaks to Norwalk, Iowa, residents during… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)

Does the kind of town-to-town, door-to-door politicking that makes states such as Iowa and New Hampshire the center of the political universe for months every presidential cycle still matter?

Sarah Palin may be ready to test that.

So says former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. Palin herself has said that if she does run for the Republican presidential nomination, she’ll do so in her own, unconventional way.

Palin’s advisors, Rove said Thursday evening on Fox News Channel, “have been very explicit about it -- that she doesn't need to go to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, press the flesh and go to all these local events in order to cultivate the local leadership. She can talk to people over that. She doesn't need to cultivate the fundraisers and the bundlers, because her mere presence in the race will generate the cash needed for the campaign."

The thought goes like this: Palin is an accomplished user of social media networks. She can pop onto Fox News, which pays her as a consultant, anytime she wishes (at least until she declares). A movie about her political rise is in theaters across the country. Her summer bus tour up the East Coast proved (again) that the media will trail her wherever she’ll go. In a sense, she has become her own news outlet.

So why bother to shake a bunch of hands, take voter questions at town halls, and hit the rubber-chicken circuit?

The question takes on more meaning in a state like Iowa, which feels right now like a state where voters are still looking for some kind of alternative—and it may explain why Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry seem to be holding their own there among the field even though they aren’t declared candidates.

Look at Tim Pawlenty. By many accounts, the former Minnesota governor is running the kind of campaign one does to win the Iowa caucuses. He’s built an infrastructure. He’s reached out to local politicos. He’s traveled extensively through the state. He even hired the daughter of the man who won Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee, as a campaign strategist.

But polls show Pawlenty still struggling to break out of single digits in the state.

Another Republican whose celebrity exceeds their organizational might, Michele Bachmann, may be putting part of the Palin plan into effect. Earlier this week, an Iowa GOP strategist, Craig Robinson, blasted Bachmann on his website, the Iowa Republican, saying she wasn’t making the kind of commitment to the state that she needs to in order to win next February’s caucuses.

Robinson, the former state party political director, said Bachmann has been flying in an out of the state on weekends and staying in the center of the state, seemingly more interested in drawing cameras than meeting voters.

“They do these events. They show up, get the media attention. She’s giving very short speeches that don’t include a whole lot of content,” said Robinson in an interview. “You can’t just campaign on the weekends. How else are you going to meet as many people as you need to?”

Bachmann, of course, has a day job as a member of the House of Representatives. This week, in fact, after campaigning in Iowa last weekend and casting a vote in the House on Tuesday, she returned to the state Wednesday and held a backyard, get-to-know-ya event in Norwalk, perhaps a sign that her campaign is beginning to shift into a more intense mode in the state.

Robinson called the difference between Bachmann and Pawlenty’s operations in the state “night and day.”

“Pawlenty has an apparatus. He has an organization,” he said. “Bachmann is just kind of showing up.” Doing well at next month’s straw poll in Ames, he said, demands personal outreach to voters in order to convince them to make the trip to vote in the summer heat.

Still, it’s the telegenic, media-centric Bachmann who is edging Pawlenty in polls. Doug Gross, a lawyer and long-time Republican activist in the state, said Bachmann cannot expect to ride her current surge of support to victory in the state without upgrading her organization—something he sees signs of taking place.

“Waves alone won’t work. They provide energy, but not direction,” Gross said. “You need an organization to do the latter and it appears they are attempting to accomplish that.”

Of course, Palin’s candlepower burns at an even higher intensity than Bachmann’s. But Rove, in the Fox News interview, said even the former Alaska governor likely won’t be able to escape the kind of on-the-ground, retail politicking that voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina expect.

Those kind of small touches, he said, “you ignore at your own peril. These people take it in these early states very seriously. And they expect to see you, they expect to hear you up close, to be able ask you questions, to be able to see you multiple times before they make a commitment.”

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