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Fading Michele Bachmann looks to 'tea party' debate for boost

September 12, 2011|By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau
  • GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann stands with rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Perry prior to last week's GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Library & Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann stands with rivals Mitt Romney… (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters )

Is Monday night’s Republican presidential debate a make-or-break moment for Michele Bachmann?

It might sound a bit ridiculous to talk in such terms while almost five months away from the first time Republican voters cast ballots in Iowa, but there is a sense that the Minnesota congresswoman’s presidential bid is rapidly losing steam.

The latest evidence: a new CNN poll that has Bachmann dropping to just 4%, behind both businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and a full eight points behind libertarian upstart Ron Paul.

The CNN poll shows Texas Gov. Rick Perry with a commanding lead among Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters at 30%, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in second place at 18%. Sarah Palin, who has not said whether she will run for president, was at 15%.

Perry’s entrance into the race last month has clearly damaged Bachmann, sucking away support among the "tea party" and social-conservative voters she desperately needs to maintain a viable shot at the nomination.

Bachmann stood at 12% in the previous CNN poll, taken in late August.

A telling indicator for the Minnesotan: If Palin doesn’t run, Bachmann's support increases in the latest poll to just 7%, so it’s not as though the ex-Alaska governor is the only obstacle in the way. (Support for Perry and Romney increases by a similar measure.)

Bachmann was riding high after her win last month in the Iowa Straw Poll, but she has failed to capitalize on the victory. Since then, her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, has departed, and she was something of a non-entity in last week’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Library & Museum in California.

Part of the reason may have been due to Bachmann herself. On the trail, she has not engaged in the sort of rhetorical hand-to-hand combat that Perry and Romney have, preferring to stick to scripted talking points attacking President Obama. But she has also suffered from diminishing media attention. A news conference last week on Capitol Hill following the president’s jobs speech was sparsely populated.

But Monday evening’s debate in Tampa, Fla., should provide her with some opportunity to regain momentum. The contest is co-sponsored, along with CNN, by the Tea Party Express, an advocacy group affiliated with the movement. As part of the format, the candidates will take questions from tea party groups across the nation, questions that likely should land right in Bachmann’s wheelhouse.

She is also expected to more aggressively hit Perry where, right now, he appears to be weakest: on Social Security. Although tea party groups are opposed to an expansive federal government, they are largely older voters who don’t want to see Social Security and Medicare substantively threatened.

In an interview with Radio Iowa, Bachmann suggested that Perry (without naming him) was scaring seniors by labeling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and by, in his book, questioning its constitutionality.

“That’s wrong for any candidate to make senior citizens believe that they should be nervous about something they have come to count on. We need not do that, but I think at the same time we also outline our positive solutions,” Bachmann said.

Monday night, Bachmann will have to deal with Perry, Romney and the rest of the GOP field, as well as a new competitor -- football. The debate will be matched up against the premiere of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

The CNN poll involved interviews of 446 Republicans with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

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