GOP's Bachmann limps to Iowa caucus finish line

December 30, 2011 - 5:11 PM
Bachmann 2012

Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., left, greets supporters during a campaign stop at the Black Bear Diner, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, in Storm Lake, Iowa. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

FORT DODGE, Iowa (AP) — Encountering small crowds and fresh viability questions, Republican Michele Bachmann slogged into the final weekend of Iowa caucus campaigning Friday looking for any spark to her flagging bid.

The closing week hasn't been kind to the one-time GOP contender: She's losing staff. She's faced calls to abandon her bid. And she has no money.

The difficulties were evident in two restaurant stops where reporters outnumbered patrons. She got a warm welcome later on in Fort Dodge, where she popped in unannounced on a Iowa State football watching party at a sports bar.

"Our effort wasn't to bring crowds out. We were just dropping in," she said outside a café in Early.

The Minnesota congresswoman is at the back of the pack in polls. But she vows 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.

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.

Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of Bachmann's closest allies in Congress, came to one of Friday's events. He praised her but he stopped short of an outright endorsement in a race that's so far kept him neutral.

"I have not made a commitment on this presidential race but I've made a commitment to this great friend to always be this great friend," King said of Bachmann.

She's spent the final week before Tuesday's Iowa caucuses on a bus tour of the state's 99 counties. 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.

By Friday, she deflected questions on the subject and signaled she was ready to move on.

Still, 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. On Friday, she announced a new roster of 22 pastors helping her turn out the vote.

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.