DES MOINES — Iowa native Michele Bachmann – hoping to mollify political expectations — says she intends to win the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses that kickoff the 2012 GOP presidential nominating process.
Others however, including her campaign manager, say she has to win Iowa if she hopes to keep her campaign viable in a race top heavy with conservatives competing for the same voting bloc.
Campaigning in Iowa is beginning to intensify again — especially as uncertainty over the exact date of the 2012 caucuses continues to compress the remaining political season. Generally, the top three finishers in Iowa get their tickets punched to move ahead in the presidential nominating process, but it’s unclear if that will hold true this year given the fluidity of the process and the decision by some GOP candidates to bypass Iowa or approach it in non-traditional ways.
Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, saw her political stock rise last August when she became the first woman to win the prestigious Ames straw poll. But the luster of that victory was almost simultaneously dulled when Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his hat into the 2012 GOP presidential ring and joined a cluster of candidates competing for support among the same pool of constitutional, “teavangelical” and social conservatives that make up a major bloc of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.
For his part, Perry has seen his momentum stall in the wake of some lackluster debate performances and criticism from rival camps, while Georgia businessman Herman Cain has enjoyed a sudden surge of support. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich also continue to woo Iowa Republicans while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is bypassing Iowa.
Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist, said the decisions of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin not to run has pretty much solidified the GOP field and has created an opening for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to score well in Iowa if he chooses to step up his effort in a race where his competitors appear likely to carve up much of the conservative base.
“If Romney could come in and win, he could really put a KO to the field,” said Lake Mills attorney Richard Schwarm, a former GOP state chairman who currently is not backing a presidential candidate in the 2012 race. At the same time, he said, Romney’s Iowa support appears to be “soft” and gearing up his Iowa effort could heightened expectations, so although “this is set up nicely for him to really do a knock-out blow, his campaign may just decide to pass on it.”
Hagle and other Iowa political scientists said candidates generally shy away from saying they have to win a particular contest, but the caucuses are shaping up to be a make-or-break contest for Bachmann similar to the challenge that fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty faced heading into the straw poll and a third-place finish that knocked him out of the race.
“If she can’t win in what seems to be her own back yard, Iowa, among Iowa Republicans, it’s hard to see how well she can compete elsewhere,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.
Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s campaign manager, raised the stakes by posting a You-Tube video recently in which he said the campaign “made a decision to go after Iowa.”
“She has to win Iowa and move on from there,” Nahigian said. “By winning Iowa, she will be on a path to victory.”
Bachmann, who has slated a three-day Iowa bus tour beginning Thursday that will take her to Denison, Sioux City, Sioux Center, Rock Rapids, Estherville and Perry, said she is very confident about her chances in Iowa but she noted “we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
“We’re playing this to win,” Bachmann said in an interview. “We have laid a stronger, firmer, deeper foundation I think than any other candidate in the race. I’m thrilled with where we are in Iowa.
“The advantage that we have in this race is the fact that we worked so hard in Iowa initially. We put down a lot of markers across the state and identified a tremendous group of supporters around Iowa,” she added. “We’re very confident about where we are, but we don’t take it for granted.”
Dianne Bystrom of Iowa State University’s Catt Center for Women and Politics, said Bachmann has lost campaign staff and seen her fundraising slip so it is important that she emerge from Iowa as the “alternative” candidate with the momentum she needs to challenge Romney for the nomination.
“I think she has to revive her campaign in Iowa. That’s why she’s spending so much time here,” Bystrom said.
Hagle agreed, saying “she’s got to do well in Iowa to get a good enough bounce so she can go on. For her, Iowa is going to be a key.
“Obviously, a win would be the best outcome, but a very strong second should satisfy her donors and that’s the big key whether people are going to donate money to her after what her Iowa finish is,” he added. “It’s possible if she doesn’t recover a little bit before then it’s just not going to happen for her.”