Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, campaigning in… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — Michele Bachmann's appearance on a talk radio show here should have been a breeze. Ronald Reagan was a sportscaster at the station in his early days, and his memorabilia is sprinkled around the office. The host was a friendly conservative.
But Bachmann repeatedly was asked the central question for her campaign: Does she have to win Iowa's caucuses to keep her presidential campaign alive? She danced around an answer, saying she planned to win, until finally relenting when asked a third time whether failure would doom her effort.
"No, no, no, no," Bachmann said, her voice growing uncertain. "Not necessarily; we might go on."
It was a rare moment of audible frustration for the Minnesota congresswoman, and the break in her perennially cheery demeanor demonstrated just how much her bid does rest on Iowa.
After she formally announced her candidacy at her birthplace of Waterloo, about 100 miles northeast of here, Bachmann surged, capping the summer with a win at the straw poll in Ames. Since then, her candidacy has sputtered.
Top Republicans neutral in the race say she squandered opportunities to build on her win and are baffled by the decisions her campaign is making, notably limiting most of her campaigning to Waterloo and the large cities of Des Moines, Ames and Cedar Rapids.
"She's a great candidate but has turned into a really bad campaigner," said one longtime Iowa GOP operative who spoke anonymously to preserve relations with the campaign. "She has not gone to northwest Iowa, to the heart of where her support would be. Of Iowa's 99 counties, she's only visited a handful, most of which are urban counties. She needs to go out to the rural counties — she would be well received."
Bachmann has dropped in the polls here, as she has nationally. Top advisors have left or been forced out. Reports of lackluster fundraising were bolstered by her campaign's plea to supporters last week for "emergency" contributions.
At an event in Cedar Rapids, aides handed out leftover brochures asking for support at the straw poll, more than a month ago. A strong presence in early Republican debates, she was starved of airtime in recent face-offs, to the point that during the last one she interrupted so she could answer another candidate's question.
Recent events have drawn low turnouts. And she continues to make gaffes. On the radio show, a caller told her he would vote for serial killer Charles Manson over President Obama. "Hey, thank you for saying that," she replied.
Bachmann insists that her fall in the polls is temporary and caused by the flurry of excitement over Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entrance in the race.
"We're very grateful for where we're at right now," Bachmann told reporters after a recent rally in Cedar Rapids. "We think we are positioned perfectly right now."
Still, her campaign does on occasion explicitly acknowledge the state's importance.
"It's extremely hard for any candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire," campaign manager Keith Nahigian wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters. "Thus for Michele, the early state is Iowa — and we plan to run aggressively and to win decisively."
There were some cracks from the beginning. Bachmann has always been late to events, irritating those awaiting her arrival. There was little verbal give and take; her gatherings sometimes felt designed more for television cameras than voters.
Still, she drew large, energetic crowds and patiently shook hands and snapped pictures with anyone seeking her out. Now she must recapture the buzz.
"Back to basics," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "She needs to get back to that grass-roots retail politics that we particularly here in Iowa like."
Bachmann's representatives say the campaign is unfolding as planned. The strategy over the summer focused on central Iowa because the straw poll was nearby in Ames, spokesman Eric Woolson said. Events elsewhere will increase in coming weeks, he said; on an upcoming two-day swing, Bachmann will hold two events in western Iowa, in addition to three in and around Des Moines.
"What you need to do between now and the caucuses is what everybody needs to be doing — that's traveling the state and meeting voters face to face and eyeball to eyeball, and telling them what you stand for and asking them for their guidance and asking them, especially in the end, for your support," said Woolson, who shepherded Mike Huckabee's surprising 2008 Iowa victory.
Bachmann's events already have changed in other ways. Although not punctual, she's not as late as she used to be. She takes more questions; inside a chilly meat locker in Des Moines recently, she answered questions until reporters ran out of them.
"We're doing exactly what we need to do," Bachmann said, standing in front of sides of beef. "We're here in Iowa, meeting with people, engaging with people, listening to them and talking about what their concerns are."