SWAN SONG

01.03.12

Michele Bachmann’s Last Stand: Campaign May End in Iowa

The feisty Minnesotan shows no signs of panic in Iowa, and insists she’ll stay in the race no matter what happens in her native state, but she may be in her last days as a presidential candidate. Plus, Andrew Romano on Santorum's dead end in Iowa.

She’s in last place in the polls in the state where she was born, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the relentlessly upbeat Michele Bachmann campaigning on Monday—the last day before Iowans go to the caucuses and, possibly, her last day as a presidential candidate.

Along with her husband, Marcus, Bachmann waded into packed shops and restaurants on a side street in West Des Moines to gamely sign autographs, chat up patrons, and pose for quick iPhone pictures with anyone who asked.

“We’re having a ball!” she said as she led a swarm of reporters and photographers from Paula’s Café across the street to the Diggity Dog pet bakery and on to the Floral Touch florist on the corner, where dozens of people had gone to escape the howling January wind. “This is what the Iowa Riviera feels like!” Bachmann joked.

But unlike her rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, who conducted a virtual siege of undecided voters across Iowa with last-minute “whistle-stop tours” and get-out-the-vote rallies, Bachmann’s only public events for the crucial last day were the impromptu lunchtime visit to West Des Moines and a 9 p.m. event at her headquarters in Urbandale.  

Between her sparse schedule, the results of the recent Des Moines Register poll, which showed her solidly in last place, and an anemic $7,600 ad buy (her first and only television ads in the state), there was little doubt Monday that Bachmann was a happy warrior atop a campaign in its last throes of existence.

“I don’t think she has a chance,” said Charlie Freund, a Monday regular at Paula’s Café. “I think she’s a nice person, but she doesn’t have a chance.”

It’s a painfully inauspicious place for the Bachmann campaign to be after launching with fanfare amid a tide of Tea Party enthusiasm six months ago. As Sarah Palin sat on the sidelines, Bachmann jumped into the arena. She hired a top-tier campaign manager, used her Tea Party connections to raise millions of dollars, and rocketed to the front of the pack in early states like Iowa on the power of her personality and the novelty of her mom/lawyer/Obama-is-a-socialist message.

She peaked in August when she became the first woman ever to win the Ames Straw Poll, an early victory that the media downplayed as a fluke, but was at least real enough to send Tim Pawlenty scrambling from the race.

But several verbal gaffes and failed fact-checks later, Bachmann found herself struggling to raise money or her position in the standings, which cratered as skittish GOP voters dashed from one favorite candidate to another and dumped Bachmann in favor of the swashbuckling Texan Rick Perry just days after she won the straw poll. She also had serial staff problems, as Ed Rollins, her campaign manager, left the campaign as quickly as he had joined it, right up through the day she watched her Iowa campaign chairman defect to Ron Paul at a televised rally just days before the caucuses.

Voters who initially felt they had connected with her backed away as they judged her not ready for primetime. 

“She lost it in the debates for me,” said Mark Lundberg, the chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, who remains undecided about whom he’ll caucus for, but knows it won’t be Bachmann.

Larry Steele, from Knoxville, Iowa, said he went to see Bachmann at Floral Touch, but is planning to caucus for Rick Santorum because he seems the most like Mike Huckabee, whom he supported in 2008. “Santorum seems to share my values,” he said.

Despite the ominous signs all around her, Bachmann has refused to show any outward indications of panic, or even concern, right until the very end.

“I will fearlessly stand on the stage and take on Barack Obama, defeat him in the debates, and go on to win and be the next president of the United States,” Bachmann said in front of her hulking campaign bus Monday, likening herself to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in her closing campaign argument. “My goal is to be America’s Iron Lady, and that’s what I intend to do.”

As a part of a specific pitch to women voters, Bachmann’s Iowa ad also makes the connection to Thatcher’s strong-woman, “Iron Lady” persona. “I am women’s best candidate,” she told me in the flower shop. “They need to vote for Michele Bachmann.”

She also insisted that no matter the results in Iowa, her campaign will go on. “We already bought and paid for our tickets to South Carolina and we already have events scheduled, so we’re on our way,” she said. She also promised to go to New Hampshire and build a 50-state campaign operation, a promise made more difficult to keep amid rumors of a poor fourth quarter of fundraising.

But the news wasn’t all bad for Bachmann on Monday. Just mostly bad.

“I think she’s a nice person, but she doesn’t have a chance.”

The Des Moines Register reported that she had won the “Coffee Bean Caucus” at the Hamburg Inn, a diner in Iowa City that famously invites patrons to drop a coffee bean into a canister for their favorite candidate. Bachmann won with 28.8 percent of the GOP vote, beating out Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich, in that order. The only cloud over Bachmann’s victory was Barack Obama’s bean count, which was six times more than hers and more than all of the GOP beans combined.

One person who would have dropped a bean for Bachmann if he had been there was Caleb Sisson, an 18-year-old student and Bachmann convert who was thrilled after meeting her in West Des Moines. “It’s really cool to see her come into town and try to meet everybody,” Caleb said. “I’d absolutely vote for her.” One catch, though. Caleb was in Des Moines on a school trip … from Ohio.