Michele Bachmann's Tough Fall

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With her campaign for the GOP presidential nomination stalled, the Minnesota congresswoman shakes ups her staff. But can it work?

Michele Bachmann - Chris Keane Reuters - banner.jpg

Updated 9/7/11-- Who "executes a planned restructuring strategy" that involves the departure of your top two strategists at a crucial moment in a stalled campaign? That would be Michele Bachmann, who is losing campaign manager Ed Rollins and his deputy just as she is grappling with the Rick Perry effect and a new, more substantive phase of the nomination race.

Rollins did Bachmann no favors when he told CNN on Monday night that "legitimately it's a (Mitt) Romney-Perry race" because they are leading in polls and leading in money, even though he added that Perry remains untested and Bachmann is doing much better than anyone thought she would. He also offered a candid assessment of the damage Perry has done to Bachmann: "We're sort of going after the same voter base and I think to a certain extent it slowed our money down. It took a lot of the momentum that we would have gotten out of the straw poll victory. To win the straw poll after eight weeks being in the race is unheard of and normally that would have given you a gigantic boost."

Perry has not just robbed Bachmann of money and momentum, he's caused her to backslide. Between June and August, Bachmann fell from 11 percent to 4 percent in the Fox News poll. She fell 3 to 8 percentage points from July to August in polls conducted by or for NBC-Wall Street Journal, Quinnipiac, CNN, Public Policy Polling and Gallup.

Rollins cast early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as testing grounds for Perry. "He has to win somewhere," Rollins said. But in reality, those states look far more difficult for Bachmann than for Perry. He's leading in the three most recent polls of Iowa while she has dropped up to 7 points in the past month. She's running third in South Carolina, where Perry has double-digit leads over both her and Romney. And in the only New Hampshire poll since Perry became a candidate, Romney is a distant first, followed by Perry. Bachmann is fourth, behind Ron Paul.

What can Bachmann do to shake things up? She made news in the first candidate debate by announcing her intention to run for president, and by performing above expectations. She'll have plenty of opportunities to reassert her claim on the tea party crown and spark some drama -- maybe even take Perry down a peg or two -- in the string of debates this fall.

More fundamentally, Bachmann is going to need to show depth. The devastating August jobs report is putting a burden on all candidates, including President Obama, to demonstrate they have ideas to make things better. Jon Huntsman released a detailed plan last week. Romney's is out and Obama's is due Thursday. Perry can rely on his record of job creation in Texas for a while, but both he and Bachmann will have to put their proposals on the table before long.

Interestingly, a questioner at Jim DeMint's Labor Day candidate forum on the Constitution took a detour to the issue of the day and asked Bachmann to describe her jobs program. She said the country could get a $1.2 trillion capital infusion if U.S. corporations could bring home overseas profits at a zero percent tax rate. She also talked about lowering the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and blocking regulations in the new health law. "We need private directed solutions and we also need permanent solutions rather than temporary government gimmicks," she said.

There were no contentious rivals, moderators or audience questioners to ask Bachmann how any of that would raise consumer demand or get companies already sitting on cash to start hiring. No one asked her to define "gimmicks," or to explain what if anything she might do right now to get things moving in the short term. Nor did anyone ask her who she might listen to for economic advice; she has already ruled out financial experts at places like PIMCO and Standard & Poor's.

Bachmann did demonstrate at the forum the key leadership trait of compartmentalization. It wasn't quite the feat Obama pulled off last spring at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when he delivered a comic speech just after having ordered special forces to go after Osama bin Laden. Still, on the day of a campaign shakeup she knew would make news, Bachmann was her usual poised self onstage. She denounced Franklin Roosevelt's "elastic" view of the Constitution as a means to an end, described the new health insurance mandate and the appointment of presidential "czars" as unconstitutional, and suggested the existence of the federal Department of Education goes counter to the constitutional understanding of education as a state and local responsibility.

Since Bachmann's straw poll victory, spokeswoman Alice Stewart says, the campaign has focused on building up its large donor program. "Team Bachmann also has a tremendous small donor base and we continue our success with raising money in that area through mail and the internet," she said in an email. In the fall debates, Stewart said, Bachmann will talk about a "pro-growth economy" and show that she is "the best candidate to stand up to Barack Obama." She didn't mention any plans to confront or challenge Perry.

Bachmann and Rollins said he stepped aside due to health concerns at his advanced age of 68. They also said Rollins would continue to advise her. As for the simultaneous departure of deputy campaign manager David Polyansky, a longtime Rollins colleague, it was "just a good time to make a change," Rollins said on CNN.

There is always more to the story. In this case, Rollins may have been responsible for a major fiasco during Bachmann's rollout. Citing campaign sources, Jan Crawford of CBS said Rollins recalled from a Reagan campaign event that John Wayne was from Waterloo. He passed along the tidbit to Bachmann, and she ran with it. As many of us now know, the real Waterloo native was John Wayne Gacy. Crawford's report made me wonder if Bachmann had read George Will's Washington Post column on Sunday. "Incompetent staffers are feeding you false information," Will wrote to Bachmann. "Has anyone been fired? Do you believe that when there is no punishment for failure, failures multiply?"

Rollins helped Bachmann set up an organization strong enough to win the Iowa straw poll. But he also apparently contributed to her reputation for gaffes and, now, the perception that she can't hang onto staff. His successor, Keith Nahigian, has worked for many prominent Republicans, including presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. One fun fact that he doesn't highlight on his resume is that in 1992, he was the advance man who arranged for Vice President Dan Quayle to participate in a spelling bee.

Yes, that spelling bee.

Image credit: Chris Keane/Reuters

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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