One week after her triumph in the Ames straw poll, Michele Bachmann isn’t feeling much love from the political media. The entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry has dominated the news and taken some of the steam out of any momentum her Iowa win might have given her. That’s a problem for a candidate who hasn’t the financial resources of either Perry or Mitt Romney, the third member of the GOP’s first-tier troika. She is still viewed by many Republicans as an outlier on policy and unelectable, and there’s little question party leaders are hoping she will fade before the Iowa caucuses where she is favored and disappear quickly after them.
But as formidable as Perry appears to be, it’s way too early to write Bachmann off as some have already done. Here are four ways for Bachmann to stay competitive and keep herself in the conversation. She needs to get personal, get serious, get better staff work and get lucky.
Michele Bachmann’s greatest asset is herself. The only reason she was catapulted from obscurity to the big time was because she has the ability to connect with voters. Her personal story and the way she relates it to her ironclad convictions is a powerful tool. Though many wise heads may rightly say her unwillingness to compromise on issues like the debt ceiling is a defect in a leader, it gives her credibility with voters looking for something other than the usual politician. But what she must do in the next four months is to capitalize on these talents rather than merely scurrying about the early primary states. Bachmann must concentrate on making the retail political culture of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina pay off. A campaign strategy that contrasts her politics of conviction with the inevitable compromises career politicians like Perry must make can keep her relevant.
Bachmann’s main problem is not just that her resume is thinner in many respects than that of her two main rivals, it is that her debt ceiling absolutism is seen as more the act of a gadfly than a president. Even as she sticks to her guns on the issues, Bachmann also has to start enunciating positions that will enable voters to imagine her as president. In the coming months, Bachmann has to talk about more than saying no to more spending. She also has to give some serious foreign policy and economic speeches that will make it clear she has some idea of how she will govern other than merely saying she thinks Obama is a disaster. Doing so won’t convince policy wonks who don’t like her anyway, and it’s true giving such speeches didn’t save Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy, but she can only add to her credibility by trying.
One of the least reported aspects of Bachmann’s Iowa victory was the fact it was in spite of, rather than because of the quality of her staff work. Unlike the other major candidates, Bachmann didn’t spend the last few years preparing to run, and it shows. The amateur feel of much of the advance work and her fundraising efforts has hampered her candidacy. And for a candidate whose main strength lies in her ability to mobilize the grassroots of her party along with Tea Partiers and religious conservatives, her Internet presence is very ordinary. Bachmann ought to be cleaning up digitally on the right in much the same way Obama did on the left in 2008, but it isn’t happening. If Bachmann doesn’t get better staff work and an improved web presence, she is doomed to early defeat. If she does, Perry is in for the fight of his life.
Other than a suicidal gaffe by one of the candidates, the wildcard in the race is the possibility a late entry or two will scramble the current alignment. While I still believe this is highly unlikely, such a development could either make or break Bachmann’s campaign. But that depends on who the late entry will be.
If Sarah Palin stops teasing her fans and actually runs for president, there’s little doubt it would be disastrous for Bachmann, because the former Alaska governor primarily appeals to the same voters. I don’t think it will happen, but if it does, Palin will almost certainly crash and burn. But she’ll take Bachmann with her.
On the other hand, if one of the trio of conservative messiahs — Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie — should enter the race, it is Perry and Romney who will be hurt. Again, I don’t think this is going to happen. But if it does, I doubt Bachmann’s conservative base of Tea Partiers and evangelicals will swoon for any of those three. Some Perry and many Romney supporters will flee them in pursuit of who they believe will be a more electable candidate. That could help Bachmann win Iowa and enable her to go on as the conservative alternative to the more mainstream GOP candidates. That isn’t necessarily a path to the nomination, but it is one that would allow her to go far deeper into the primary season.
None of this free advice comes with a guarantee. It may well be the GOP electorate is too eager to beat Obama to try their luck with an ideological candidate who might turn out to be another Goldwater or McGovern-style landslide loser. But if Bachmann spends the next few months capitalizing on her strengths, minimizing her weaknesses and getting a little bit lucky, there’s no reason to believe she won’t still be in the thick of it in January.