GOP's Bachmann limps to Iowa caucus finish line

December 30, 2011 - 5:16 AM
Bachmann 2012

Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. speaks during a campaign stop at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

NEVADA, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is limping toward Tuesday's Iowa presidential caucuses.

She's losing staff. She's faced calls for her to abandon her bid. And she has no money.

Yet, the Minnesota congresswoman, at the back of the pack in polls, is vowing to soldier on, even if that means her candidacy will split the vote of pivotal conservatives in Iowa and allow for victories by a candidate who isn't seen as adhering as strongly to GOP orthodoxy — like Mitt Romney or Ron Paul.

"Nobody's working harder," Bachmann says, declaring her campaign "strong" and suggesting that sheer hustle will carry her to victory.

Regarded as a tea party heroine, the only woman in the Republican race has struggled to revive her campaign since her standing dropped shortly after she won a statewide test vote in Iowa. That turned out to be the high point of her campaign.

She's spent the final week before Iowa's caucuses on a bus tour of the state's 99 counties. On Thursday, she passed around pieces of cake to diners in the town of Nevada to mark the end of the tour that had her cramming in 10 or more meet-and-greets a day in cafes, bowling alleys and pizza shops. Sometimes the crowds barely registered double digits; in other places they spilled out the doors.

But instead of ending the exhausting sprint on a high note, Bachmann found herself facing a new reality: Rick Santorum was the conservative candidate whose standing was rising ahead of the caucuses, not her.

She also found herself feuding with high-level advisers, only the latest to abandon her.

Two top Iowa advisers left the campaign on successive days this week, with her state chairman, Kent Sorenson, quitting and then going so far as to endorse Paul within hours of campaigning with her. A day later, Wes Enos said he was leaving his job as Bachmann's political director.

Furious, Bachmann spent much of Thursday accusing Sorenson of switching allegiances for money. He denied it. But the candidate found herself in a daylong spat rather than hammering home her closing message to voters.

To some, it was another sign of a campaign in free-fall.

"If you can't get your campaign on one page, it's really hard to think you're going to get a country on one page. The timing is horrible," said veteran Iowa Republican strategist David Roederer, who is unaffiliated in this year's race but held top Iowa posts in John McCain's 2008 campaign and George W. Bush's 2000 bid.

It didn't help that the departures came on top of calls by some Iowa pastors that either she or Santorum leave the race so evangelical voters can consolidate their support and block a victory by Romney or Paul. She quickly rejected the plea.

Brad Cranston, a pastor from Burlington who originally liked the idea of a merged campaign, said he's given up on that prospect and will stick with Bachmann. So will Pastor Bill Tvedt of Oskaloosa, even if he knows her chances of winning have taken a hit.

"Maybe she is out of the running at this point," Tvedt said. "I think she can come back. To bail out on the basis of electability is self-defeating to the process."

But even if she stays in the race through Tuesday, it's doubtful she could sustain a campaign beyond that.

Despite her reputation as a prolific fundraiser, she's virtually out of money. Bachmann didn't air a single TV ad in December and won't broadcast one until the day before the caucuses.

Instead, she's rolling out Internet videos, like the one she filmed this week that cast her as the "Iron Lady" of the 21st century.

And she's urging Republicans on the fence to ignore her stagnant or slipping poll numbers — and Santorum's rise.

It's unclear whether she's having any luck.

Recent college graduate Adam Fischer sized up Bachmann in central Iowa and liked her solidly conservative voting record, but he said he may still opt for Santorum.

"I don't want to become subject to that poll mentality because that's what gets us weak candidates," Fischer said. Then he acknowledged that the one with the head of steam come Tuesday will probably get his vote.