12.31.11

Michele Bachmann Smiles Through

Rocked by key staff defections and trailing in the polls, the Minnesota congresswoman heads into Tuesday's vote in serious trouble. Lloyd Grove on the happy warrior's smiling determination. Plus, Patricia Murphy on Rick Perry's last-ditch bid for relevance.

FORT DODGE, Iowa—In one of the more memorable scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and the Black Knight attack each other with swords. The fight apparently comes to a swift conclusion when Arthur lops off one of the knight’s arms. “’Tis but a scratch,” the knight insists as blood spurts like a geyser. So Arthur lops off the other arm. “Come on, then!” the knight taunts as he commences kicking. “Look, you stupid bastard,” Arthur protests, “you’ve got no arms left!” The knight scoffs: “Yes I have! It’s just a flesh wound.”

So Arthur lops off both of the knight’s legs. “All right,” the limbless torso concedes, “we’ll call it a draw.”

So it was on Friday afternoon as wounded Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann—her Iowa juggernaut losing limbs of its own, notably her political director and state chairman (a treacherous defector to Ron Paul)—parked her campaign bus beside a coffeehouse here and glad-handed voters like a champion.

“Hi, you guys!” she called out as she burst into Central Perk & Dessert, where about 40 people (including a few self-described “political tourists”: a retired married couple from Illinois and a liberal-Democrat guy from Seattle) filled the bare wooden tables.

“Welcome to Fort Dodge!” an older woman and bona fide resident shouted, prompting the candidate to approach her table and, brandishing a Sharpie, offer to autograph a Bachmann for President bumper sicker.

“We are REALLY HAPPY to be here, too!” Bachmann said, a dazzling smile on her face. “I’m glad YOU’RE here today!”

As she happily worked the room, the 55-year-old Bachmann looked wonderful—a vision in a tweed jacket and jeans, stylish boots, with luxuriant, perfectly coiffed chestnut hair, perfect skin, and perfectly manicured pearl-colored fingernails. One would hardly know that this conservative congresswoman from neighboring Minnesota—a Waterloo, Iowa, native who only 4 1/2 months ago won the celebrated Ames Straw Poll and duly claimed front-runner status—is practically out of money and running dead last, in single digits, in the latest surveys of likely caucusgoers.

Bachmann’s campaign manager insists her departed state chairman was “just a figurehead,” and says the firing of her political director will have “zero impact.”

“You know I won’t cave. You know I won’t buckle,” she reassured two diehard supporters, corn and soybean farmer Dan Hansen and Wendy’s franchise owner Mark Miller. “Thank you for your prayers. Tell everybody you know to come out Tuesday night!”

As she bought coffee to go for the remaining aides who followed her around the room with a small media entourage in tow, Bachmann sounded, as usual, like a believer.

“Our 99-county tour was absolutely fabulous after our last debate in Sioux City. It was just electric!” she told me when I asked what keeps her going. “And it was so much fun to go all across Iowa. It was the right decision for the campaign—because we were able to flip a lot of people in the last two weeks.”

Never mind that that media-political complex has decided that the noise emanating from her once-promising crusade is a death rattle.

“I don’t know if you were at our last press conference,” she continued, “but we were with [Iowa] Congressman [Steve] King, and he said what really makes a difference are the people who are going to stand up and talk for you [at the caucuses]. And the night before last we had 150 people who called us and said, ‘We’re gonna stand up and talk for you!’ And the same thing happened last night and the same thing happened today.”

So Bachmann is going to be the surprise headline of next Tuesday night?

“I think so!” she insisted.

Her campaign manager, Washington political consultant Keith Nahigian, later claimed that the Bachmann effort was unaffected by the abrupt defection to the Paul campaign of Iowa State Rep. Kent Sorenson, Bachmann’s erstwhile Iowa chairman; “he was just a figurehead,” Nahigian scoffed. Ditto the firing of political director Wes Enos—“Zero impact,” Nahigian insisted. Enos had contradicted Bachmann’s claim (vehemently denied by Sorenson and the Paulites) that Sorenson joined the Texas congressman’s popular campaign after being offered a large sum of money. “Yes, he was,” Nahigian elaborated, but produced no proof. “He told people that they offered him $30,000 plus $8,000 a month as long as Ron Paul stays in the race.” Of course, staff turmoil is nothing new for Bachmann; shakeups are commonplace on her congressional team.

Having shaken every hand at Central Perk & Dessert, Bachmann power-walked across the parking lot (shouting greetings at startled passersby) and repeated the process at Sneakers, a sports bar where patrons were watching Iowa State’s football team lose badly to Rutgers while they consoled themselves with beers and Bloody Marys.

“It looks like you got a good start!” Bachmann joked to a gray-haired lady who was sitting before a big bowl piled high with beer on ice. “I’m proud of you!”

But out in the parking lot, her supporters Dan Hansen and Mark Miller were worried.

“She’s in a tough spot,” said the 49-year-old Miller. “You have to do what you feel is right,” he said of the recent unpleasantness. “Hopefully, it hasn’t been devastating to Bachmann...I like her pluck.”

Hansen, 55, who supported 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, said he was with Bachmann this time because of “her value system, her honesty, integrity, her Midwest upbringing, her faith, her inward strength, and all those things. You can tell she loves people. She’s not in it just for the power.”

At which point the candidate herself emerged from Sneakers and, after saying a final goodbye to Hansen and Miller, climbed aboard her bus. As it pulled away and edged onto the street, a small window cracked open, and there was Bachmann, popping out her beautifully tressed head to energetically smile and wave.

At least she had her arms.