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Reagan debate: Michele Bachmann faces a stiff test

September 07, 2011|By James Oliphant
  • Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann speaks to a crowd of about 75 people at a "tea party" event in Des Moines.
Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann speaks to a crowd of about 75 people… (Steve Pope / Getty Images )

While all eyes are expected to be on Rick Perry on Wednesday evening as he makes his debating debut on the national stage, it might be Michele Bachmann who has the most to prove.

For weeks, Bachmann and her camp have watched as Perry has swallowed up media coverage and vaulted to the front of the presidential pack. And he has done so by stealing much of Bachmann’s thunder.

It was less than a month ago that Bachmann prevailed in the Ames Straw Poll, and then appeared an all of the Sunday morning talk shows the following day in a victory lap. Her political star appeared to be in its ascension. But there are signs now that that may have been when it was at its apex.

Perry declared for president the same day as her Straw Poll triumph and, in the mind of many, eclipsed it. The following day, he aggressively invaded her turf: a political dinner in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa.

Since then, while Perry has arguably swiped more support away from Mitt Romney, he appears to have capped Bachmann’s capacity to grow her electoral base. Polls show that religious conservatives and "tea-party" activists, the kinds of voters that are crucial to Bachmann’s success in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, are turning Perry’s way.

She has also been hampered by some perhaps ill-timed remarks about Hurricane Irene and the defection of two senior campaign aides, including campaign chieftan Ed Rollins.

For Bachmann, bashing President Obama and his agenda may no longer be enough. Her mission at the Reagan Library on Wednesday will be to first stop the bleeding. Second, she’ll have to go after Perry, do something to slow his momentum (as will Romney). Third, she’ll have to make a renewed case as to why she, as a three-term congresswoman, not Perry, the Texas governor, or Romney, the former Massachusetts chief executive, should be the GOP nominee.  In doing so, she’ll have to settle persistent doubts among conservatives about her experience, her discipline, and her ability to lead.

Bachmann has shown before that she can rise to the occasion. She did so in the first GOP debate, in New Hampshire in June.  This evening, she’ll bear watching.

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