Bachmann’s road to the White House gets rocky

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann is finding it hard to sustain the high-flying cash haul that once propelled her to the top ranks among GOP presidential contenders.

Down in the polls, rocked by verbal miscues and staff shakeups, Bachmann’s fundraising is showing signs of flat-lining in recent months, a period that saw her go from a win in Iowa’s straw poll to also-ran status in public opinion surveys.

Bachmann says her campaign finance reports — which will be made public Saturday — will show she took in donations from 92,000 supporters who gave an average of $42 each. That would put her total for the third quarter just shy of $4 million, down from the previous three-month period, when she raised $4.2 million from her congressional and presidential committees. Half of that was raised in the latter half of June, as she launched her long-anticipated campaign. By Bachmann’s account, the typical recent contribution also has dropped down from the previous average of $48.

Those numbers are far behind those of rivals like Rick Perry, who has raised an estimated $17 million since he entered the race in August and snatched the spotlight from her. Presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney announced Friday that he has raised $14 million over the past three months. Texas congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian maverick often treated as a fringe candidate, is claiming $8 million in third-quarter fundraising.

Bachmann aides have said they will wait until Saturday’s federal deadline of midnight before revealing their exact fundraising totals public, usually not an indication of a good haul.

Campaigning this week in Iowa, where she is pinning her hopes on the first-in-the-nation caucuses Jan. 3, Bachmann put a positive spin on her fundraising. “We are extremely delighted with the support that we’ve had,” she said. “It’s very broad-based and it’s a huge amount of support.”

'Everything wrong’

Dollar figures aren’t the only numbers Bachmann has to worry about. Two polls this week show her trailing far behind Romney and Herman Cain, the current GOP leaders. Among likely Iowa caucus goers — the epicenter of her campaign — Bachmann is polling between 8 and 10 percent. Among Republicans in New Hampshire, the first primary state, a poll released Friday showed Bachmann with 99 percent name recognition and a 56 percent unfavorable rating.

“Not only are the poll numbers dismal, but Iowa’s record is not of picking an eventual nominee, it’s of weeding out the weak in the field,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist based in Tampa. “If you pull off a win in Iowa but can’t win anywhere else, what does that say? It says you’re not electable.”

That’s not the view in Bachmann’s camp, where campaign manager Keith Nahigian tells supporters that fundraising is holding steady and that “by winning Iowa she will be on a path to victory.”

But Bachmann has had little to buoy her since the August straw poll in Ames, where she danced with her husband to a country band under an air-conditioned tent. It was the last time her quest for the White House had the look and feel of a high-buck national campaign.

Since then, her storied GOP campaign manager, Ed Rollins, has stepped down. A top pollster is leaving this month, and several other campaign aides have been shuffled around or left — some with little or no explanation. One press aide, Doug Sachtleben, was reported to be returning to Bachmann’s congressional office. On Friday, Sachtleben left to work for Louisiana Republican John Fleming.

With the Republican field now dominated by Romney, Cain and even a fading Perry, some strategists believe the lug nuts have started to come off of Bachmann’s sparkling blue campaign bus.

“She has done everything wrong since impressively winning the Iowa straw poll,” wrote Steve Deace, an influential conservative broadcaster in Iowa. “She essentially needs to start all over again and convince Iowans she is a stable enough leader to handle the job of president. That means hiring the right staff and retaining them, staying on message, showing up on time to events and standing up to the opposition rather than wilting away. It’s been stunning to watch her self-inflicted implosion, but the race is still open enough for her to re-emerge, though she has a miniscule margin of error.”

'Come back to Bachmann’

There is little dispute that the sunny polish has faded since Bachmann’s inaugural debate performance in June. She came in dead last in Florida GOP straw poll last month and fared poorly at a recent Values Voters summit in Washington, where she finished near the back of the pack with 8 percent support. Even back home in Minnesota, Bachmann finished a distant second to Cain this month in a Midwest Leadership Conference straw poll. Cain garnered 52 percent to Bachmann’s 12 percent.

While she can still bring Tea Partiers and evangelical audiences to their feet, there are other signs of strain. Press inquiries are routinely ignored, and recent donor pitches have seemed slapdash. One recent campaign video had Bachmann lamenting “high employment” under President Obama.

Then there was her national television interview in September suggesting a link between the HPV vaccine for girls and “mental retardation,” a statement that was roundly criticized on the left and right — including by Rollins and other top aides. The controversy obscured her attack on Perry’s vaccine program in Texas, which seemed to help neither candidate.

“Based on her performance in the last couple of months, and the last few weeks in particular, she’s demonstrated to a lot of people who once believed in her magic that it’s just not there and it’s not going to happen,” Ingram said.

Bachmann backers say it’s not too late — at least in Iowa. “She’s certainly viable,” said Ryan Rhodes, an Iowa Tea Party Revolution leader who endorsed her in August.

Supporters may find comfort in what has been the topsy-turvy nature of the GOP primary race, with Bachmann, then Perry, and then Cain surging against Romney, the establishment favorite.

“If conservatives aren’t happy with Perry and they don’t think Cain can get elected,” said Minnesota Repubilcan Party Chairman Tony Sutton, “then they can come back to Bachmann.”

(Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.)