Defiant Michele Bachmann keeps fighting for Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, left, is guided down a sidewalk during a campaign stop, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in West Des Moines, Iowa. AP

AP

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA - Michele Bachmann isn't giving up without a fight.

After stopping in at a luncheonette, pet store and florist here on Monday, the Minnesota lawmaker implored supporters not to "settle" for one of her rivals, telling reporters she would govern "in the image and likeness of a Ronald Reagan of a Margaret Thatcher, and that's what I will do."

"My goal," she said, "is to be America's iron lady."

She may not have the chance. Bachmann was on top of the political world just five months ago, having scored an Iowa straw poll victory that had the media casting her as the clear frontrunner to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses - and a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

But polls now suggest Bachmann is poised to finish at or near the bottom of the pack in the caucuses, which will take place around the Hawkeye State this evening. Bachmann has campaigned hard - she recently visited 99 Iowa counties in a week-and-a-half - but she has little to show for it: While Rick Santorum has surged in support with the help of the same social conservatives Bachmann is courting, the Minnesota lawmaker has been reduced to insisting to reporters that she won't be dropping out of the race tomorrow morning.

Amid a tightly-packed scrum of reporters at Paula's Made Rite luncheonette on Monday, Bachmann shook hands, posed for pictures - "go Facebook it!," she said more than once - and implored Iowans to caucus for her tonight. (According to her husband Marcus, Bachmann ordered a triple malt chocolate milkshake to drink on the campaign bus.) In a media availability afterword, she stressed her middle class credentials, her support for "traditional marriage" and "religious liberty," her national security experience (Bachmann serves on the House intelligence committee), her ability to "fearlessly" debate and defeat President Obama, and the fact that she is a native Iowan.

She also went after the men who are leading her in the polls. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, she said, supported "socialized medicine" and are thus unlikely to repeal the health care law; Ron Paul would be "dangerous" because of his national security views; and Santorum "has voted for the bridge to nowhere [and] defends the practice of earmarks," and previously supported the "pro-abortion" Arlen Specter in the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary.

Jane Livingston of Des Moines said she was backing Bachmann because she would "repeal Obamacare," "secure our borders" and "get back to the Constitution."

"Family values are huge for me," she added. "I'm a Christian."

Another self-described conservative, Rod Wisecup, said he likes Bachmann - "she's pretty staunch, she stands by what she thinks" - but suggested he is leaning toward Santorum.

"Santorum's got a little bit more experience," he said. "The thing that scares me about Bachmann is she only has like four years as a congressman and she's got some learning to do."

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

It's not entirely clear why Bachmann has fallen in the polls since her August straw poll victory. Bachmann did not trip up in the debates, like Rick Perry, or get hurt by a barrage of negative ads, like Newt Gingrich; she is essentially the same relentlessly on-message candidate she was back in August, when she garnered celebrity-level adulation as she was driven around the straw poll grounds in a golf cart.

One theory, popular among the reporters who have followed Bachmann on a daily basis, is that her attempts to engage Iowa voters have backfired. Bachmann's recent 99-county tour involved an average of ten events per day, a situation that forced the candidate to give a short stump speech, shake a few hands and move on to the next event quickly. The situation was even worse when Bachmann was running late; she would try to make up time throughout the day, which meant shortening already-tight stops and sometimes trying to engage voters while the music was still blaring from speakers overhead. Her emphasis on quantity over quality of campaign stops may have rubbed undecided voters who took time out of their day to see and potentially engage the candidate the wrong way.

Bachmann communications director Alice Stewart disputes the notion that Bachmann did not connect with voters during her tour.

"She loves to visit with the people. She will shake every single hand in the room. It's not a matter of just dropping into a place, driving through a place, she enjoys doing this with the people," said Stewart, who said undecided voters regularly left events supporting Bachmann. "She's humbled by the fact that they come out and want to meet with her."

"It's hard to visit with each and every person," Stewart added, "but every venue we went to we made every attempt for her to sit down and visit with people face to face and shake hands and speak with them."

Another theory is that Bachmann's gender has done Bachmann no favors. Bachmann is the only woman in the GOP field, and many conservative voters here largely say that while they have no problem supporting a woman, "it's a factor for other people," in the words of Robin Pospisil.

"There's a lot of people that would feel like a man is stronger," adds Jolene Beveridge, who came out to see Bachmann on Monday - though she added: "Times are changing - she seems pretty strong to me." (Asked about whether Bachmann's gender has hurt her, Stewart responded, "we don't see that.")

Perhaps most harmful to Bachmann has been the perception that she simply can't win the nomination - let alone the election - in part because of a lack of resources.

"She's a sweet lady but I don't think she can pull it off," said a woman who gave her name only as Karen. Added Beveridge: "I hear everybody say that she doesn't have enough [money] to go on."

Bachmann is stressing the fact that more than 200 Iowa pastors have endorsed the candidate, and Bachmann says she expects their congregations to come out tonight in support of her. Her campaign says that over three days volunteers made over 10,000 calls on her behalf from her campaign headquarters, a "concentrated phone-banking effort" it says will pay dividends.

And while there are those who say she should consider dropping out tomorrow - among them Sarah Palin, who said on Fox News Monday that it may be time for Bachmann to "start saying 'why don't we coalesce around one of the other candidates'" - Bachmann insists that she will soldier on. She is signaling that she will essentially skip the New Hampshire primary one week from now - though she will participate in a pair of debates in the Granite State - and make what could be her last stand in South Carolina, which holds its primary on January 21. If she doesn't do well enough there to spur an influx in donations, she may well be forced to drop out of the race before the Florida primary on January 31.

Livingston, the Bachmann supporter who came to see Bachmann campaign on Monday, said she hoped Iowans would put their concerns about Bachmann's viability aside and back the third-term congresswoman because of her message.

"I hope that people will go to the polls and forget all the media people that say this one can't go on or that one doesn't have the money, because this is the process, and if we don't let the process happen - I just think it's so unfair and I hope that people will vote their conscience," she said.

With reporting by CBS News/National Journal off-air reporter Rodney Hawkins.

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