Fresh competition forces Bachmann to refocus campaign

Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann speaks at a Tea Party Express Rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images

A month ago the race for the Republican presidential nomination seemed to be all about U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

The Minnesota congresswoman still receives plenty of media attention, but much of the focus is now on her dwindling prospects in the face of new competition from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"She's in, I think, a fight for her life here," said Steven Smith, Washington University political science professor, of Bachmann's campaign. "She's at risk of being in the single digits."

Bachmann will be among the GOP presidential hopefuls on stage for a debate tonight at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. It will be the first time Perry joins the candidates in a debate. Since entering the race Perry has shot to the top of the polls while Bachmann has dropped, prompting some observers to question whether Bachmann can compete for the nomination.

Smith said Bachmann needs to do something to break out of the slump - a tactic former Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried in his brief but unsuccessful foray into presidential politics.

"She has to do sort of what Pawlenty had to do in Iowa and basically kind of re-establish her competitiveness in this contest," Smith said. "Clearly Perry has taken a lot more support away from Bachmann than Romney and other Republican candidates, so she has to try to win back that support. If she's not able to do that, she knows that she's in trouble."

Pawlenty was unable to get out of that kind of trouble and dropped out of the race last month.

So far Bachmann hasn't gone after Perry in the way she directly attacked Pawlenty. But a political action committee that supports Bachmann will begin airing a television ad in South Carolina today promoting Bachmann as an "honest conservative" and accusing Perry of being no friend of the budget-cutting tea party.

"But what's his record?" an announcer asks in the political ad. "Rick Perry doubled spending in a decade."

The Perry campaign blasted the ad calling it blatantly false.

Bachmann's campaign saw a shake up over the weekend in the loss of her campaign manager, Ed Rollins who previously worked for President Ronald Reagan and Republican candidates Ross Perot and Mike Huckabee.

The official line from the Bachmann campaign is that health problems prevented Rollins from overseeing the campaign but that he will remain a "senior advisor." A campaign press release called the move "a planned restructuring strategy."

There's probably a lot more to the shake-up, said Larry Jacobs, University of Minnesota political science professor.

"If things were going well, we would not be seeing this sort of press release," he said.

"Clearly Perry has taken a lot more support away from Bachmann than Romney and other Republican candidates."

Bachmann is regrouping in hopes of reclaiming the momentum that escaped her about as quickly as it propelled her to the forefront of the GOP race, Jacobs said. In announcing Rollins' departure, Bachmann also named an interim campaign manager, Keith Nahigian. Jacobs said he'll be watching for a high-profile Rollins replacement.

"The question though, I think, at this point is, 'Can Bachmann stabilize her campaign?' " Jacobs said. "Can she regain momentum that catapulted her from really a nobody in the presidential sweepstakes to a leading candidate by the Iowa Straw Poll? Now she's fallen out of favor, and this is the kind of test that often knocks out campaigns."

Despite her recent setbacks, Jacobs said, it's too early to write off Bachman, who so far has a good debate track record. He said Bachmann could build on that to distinguish herself from Perry.

Jacobs also said as a member of Congress and head of the tea party caucus, Bachmann is nicely positioned to have her loud anti-establishment voice included in news surrounding upcoming budget battles this fall in Washington. A key test is likely to come in mid-October, when the candidates have to release their quarterly fundraising numbers.

If Bachmann can't compete with Perry and Mitt Romney in fundraising, she may have no choice but to re-evaluate her campaign.

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