For a while there, Rep. Michele Bachmann seemed to be all anyone could talk about in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Telegenic, controversial and aligned with fiscal and social conservatives, she soaked up media coverage and seemed to be emerging as the GOP base's preferred alternative to Mitt Romney - particularly since Mike Huckabee decided to forgo the race and Sarah Palin continued waffling about whether she would jump in.
Then came August 13. It was, in once sense, a triumphant day for Bachmann: She won the (albeit overhyped) Iowa straw poll, generating headlines about how she was a top-tier contender with a legitimate shot at the nomination. But August 13 was also the day that Texas governor Rick Perry decided to throw his ten-gallon hat into the race.(Above, Brian Montopoli breaks down Wednesday's debate.)
Ever since then, Bachmann has steadily faded. Perry shot to the front of the polls on the strength of his dual establishment/base appeal, while Bachmann sank back to third or fourth, alongside Ron Paul. Unable to capitalize on her straw poll momentum, she shook up her campaign staff, removing campaign manager Ed Rollins - who promptly declared the contest a two-man race between Perry and Bachmann.
Wednesday's debate was Bachmann's chance to show she had come up with some sort of plan to regain some semblance of momentum. And despite a strong performance in past debates, she let the opportunity pass her by. While Perry and Romney sparred, a subdued Bachmann failed to get in any memorable lines and looked like a footnote who belonged with the also-rans, not the contenders.
In the spin room after the debate, Rollins - who is still with the Bachmann campaign - tried to frame Bachmann's unmemorable debate performance as no big deal.
"I think the bottom line is, there was enough beating up of each other tonight [between Romney and Perry] that we didn't have to get in," he said. "You know, never interrupt your enemy when they're in the process of destroying themselves is an old adage."
Yet the fact that Bachmann came into the debate seemingly without any sort of plan to reverse her slide suggested she simply doesn't know how to stop the bleeding. Unless Perry collapses, it's hard to see how she can move back up to the top tier.
Bachmann will likely go all-in to try to win the Iowa caucuses in the hopes that a victory will provide her campaign with some much-needed juice. But with Romney and Perry badly out-raising her and well positioned to win other key states, it's hard to see how even that would be enough.
With no formal Republican response planned to President Obama's jobs speech tonight, Bachmann hopes to generate some buzz by stepping into the void, holding a Capitol Hill press conference after the president wraps up. If she wants to counter the growing perception that the race has narrowed to a Romney/Perry face-off, she'll need to bring to the table something more memorable than she did last night.