In August, Rep. Michele Bachmann was treating potential supporters to free country music entertainment from Randy Travis inside air-conditioned tents at the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll.
Things seem to have changed. Last week, she e-mailed supporters what appeared to be a low-budget Power Point presentation that outlines her campaign strategy.
Bachmann may simply be hoarding her dollars at the end of the third quarter fundraising cycle, but political strategists speculate that the campaign is in financial straits after two months of tough poll results. They were not encouraged when Bachmann's former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told MSNBC that she lacked the "ability or resources" to continue campaigning if she does not win the Iowa caucuses.
Yet Bachmann says her campaign is far from over; she recently assured Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that "we can turn things around."
Whether that's the case will depend a great deal on whether Bachmann has collected a substantial amount of money this quarter - and whether it's enough to attract new support to sustain her campaign into the primaries.
The last day of the third quarter was Sept. 30, but Bachmann's spokeswoman Alice Stewart said the campaign will not be announcing its fundraising totals before the official filing date of Oct. 15.
At this point in the nominating process, the third quarter reports are especially important because they provide a snapshot of how much cash a candidate will be capable of raising going into the expensive primary and caucus season, and whether they're managing their dollars well.
For Bachmann, the numbers need to look good on two fronts.
"It doesn't matter if you've raised $20 million. If you don't have any left, you're not going to be able to turn out your vote."
First, she'll need to post substantially larger figures than the $4.2 million she raised in the second quarter, half of which came from her congressional account. Exactly how much more is a matter of debate. But Republican strategist Scott Reed said she needs at least $6-to-$7 million to show "the finance world that she's serious and she can carry on."
Bachmann's aware. In a last-minute fundraising appeal, she wrote, "Barack Obama's campaign machine will use the numbers we report not only as a sign of our campaign's strength...Your donation today will ensure our campaign is able to post strong numbers."
If she has not made a lot of cash, Bachmann won't seem like a good investment, Reed said. She will have difficulty attracting powerful "bundlers," fundraisers who can pool large donations from many individuals, and more high-rolling contributors willing to give the maximum of $2,500.
But it's also important to look past the top-line number to see how much extra cash she has, said Steven Grubbs, a Republican operative in Iowa, who predicts that Bachmann will need at least $500,000 to $1 million on hand.
"If a candidate shows that they're in arrears, donors - especially large donors - know that their donations will be used to retire debt," said Rich Galen, another GOP strategist. "At this point in the cycle, donors aren't interested in doing that."
Being in debt or breaking even is also a sign that the campaign has spent too much and won't be capable of sustaining itself into the winter, when primary season really kicks in, said Reed.
"It doesn't matter if you've raised $20 million," Reed said. "If you don't have any left, you're not going to be able to turn out your vote."
Small Donors vs. Big Donors
Traditionally, Bachmann has been a prodigious fundraiser. During her 2010 congressional reelection campaign, she pulled in a whopping $13 million, with about $7.5 million coming from individual donations of less than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks campaign money.
This election cycle, Bachmann has not strayed from her time-tested fundraising strategies, opting for relatively inexpensive Internet outreach, speeches to conservative groups and free media appearances to fill her coffers and perform well in the polls.
For a while, it appeared to be working. She won the Iowa Straw Poll in August. But since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, Bachmann has struggled to keep her standing among the Republican base.
To prove that she still has the heart of the Republican base, Bachmann's filings must show that she's still making a lot of money from donors willing to give small amounts. (Read: Bachmann's small donors demonstrate faith, even as poll numbers slide.)
But the strategy will only get her so far. Bachmann will eventually have to appeal to wealthier, more influential contributors, and the best way to do that is with a win in Iowa or New Hampshire, Grubbs said.
"That's the point at which she begins testing to see if traditional major donors in the party will get behind her," he said.
Even if Bachmann wins in Iowa, where she's spending much of her time at the moment, she faces the separate challenge of moving her campaign to other states, said Anthony Corrado, a government professor and political finance expert and at Colby College in Maine.
"That's why the [early money] becomes so important," Corrado said. "It's very hard to just focus on one state and then start to plan for the next state. You typically have to be spending in five, six, seven states at the same time."
Former GOP candidate Mike Huckabee fell into the same trap in 2008, Corrado pointed out. Though he raised less money than the other candidates, he went all-in in Iowa and won nevertheless. The victory helped Huckabee do well in other states, too - but only temporarily. Ultimately, he didn't make it through the nomination process partly because he lacked the money to build infrastructure and organize throughout the country.
Corrado is skeptical that Bachmann simply needs to make more money than she did in the second quarter to prove her standing in the race; she also needs to outpace her opponents.
"If you suddenly find yourself well behind [Mitt] Romney, behind Perry, behind even say a Ron Paul, then you're in trouble," he said.
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