NEVADA, Iowa—In a few minutes, Michele Bachmann’s whale-blue campaign bus will pull up to the Snack Time Family Restaurant in this central Iowa town. It’s running a little late. I use the extra time to buy a copy of the Ames Tribune, the paper that serves the college town next door. On Page One: a picture of Bachmann standing on a chair, surrounded by signs with her name on them, rapt Iowa crowd totally unaware of the banner headline they’re going to appear under: “Wheels coming off?”
Bachmann is closing out a 14-day, 99-county tour of the state where she was born. At each stop, she delivers a capsule version of her stump speech, shakes hands, and poses for a video asking the good people of the county to caucus for her. All that work, and what’s the story? Kent Sorenson.
Her Iowa campaign chairman, a first-term state senator, ditched her on Wednesday night. He appeared with her at a stop in Indianola, and then, hours later, joined Ron Paul in Des Moines to announce his switch. “There is a clear top tier in the race for the Republican nomination for president,” he explains in the Tribune, adding that he maintains “an immense amount of respect for Michele.”
Funny, she doesn’t seem to think of him that way. “Kent said to me yesterday that ‘everyone sells out in Iowa, why shouldn’t I,’ ” she told the Tribune. “Then he told me he would stay with our campaign.” My friend was bribed. I was betrayed. This was the closing message from the Republican who once led the Iowa polls.
The whole day’s been like this. In the morning, Bachmann walked into the temperature-controlled calm of the Jan Mickelson Show to field friendly questions. No curveballs until a caller asked Bachmann to explain something: She says Sorenson had been offered money, but her state political director, Wes Enos, swore it wasn’t true.
“[Kent] told me himself that he was offered money, a lot of money, by the Ron Paul campaign,” says Bachmann. “It was very clear that this effort to offer him money happened after the Sioux City debate, after we were gaining tremendous momentum in all 99 counties across Iowa. People were flipping away from Ron Paul. They were coming to decide on Michele Bachmann.”
Hang on. The Sioux City debate, where Bachmann pointed a flamethrower at Paul and blasted until the gas ran out, was Dec. 15. On that day, the RealClearPolitics average of polls pegged Paul at 16.6 percent, good enough for third place, and Bachmann at 9.6 percent, good enough for fifth. Four days later, Paul jumped to first place. By Dec. 28, when Sorenson switched jerseys, Paul was at 22.5 percent, and Bachmann was at 9 percent. Sure, there are lots of ways of gauging momentum. Crowd size, for example. But Paul’s crowds are bigger than Bachmann’s. What was she talking about?
It’s a question you could have asked any day this year. The Bachmann campaign was supposed to be the embodiment of the Tea Party. The movement had “catapulted her from a backbencher in Washington to a leading contender on the presidential trail”—this from the Lois Romano profile of Bachmann, largely remembered for the googly-eyed Newsweek cover it came with.
That cover ran right after the debt ceiling compromise, right when S&P downgraded America’s credit rating because, in part, “the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues.” When that happened, Bachmann was in Iowa reminding Republicans that she “led the fight against raising the debt limit.” She won the $35-per-ticket Ames Straw Poll, aided by her husband passing out free tickets from a golf cart. The very same day, Rick Perry entered the race. Bachmann would never again lead a poll in Iowa.
We can’t say Bachmann suffered because she was unserious. Come on. For a whole month, the Iowa frontrunner was Herman Cain. She didn’t have the money of Mitt Romney or Ron Paul, but there was a long period when few TV ads were running. The best explanation for her fade might be that Bachmann fell into a constant pattern of attack, a one-woman embodiment of the fight-happy Congress that even Republicans were showing fatigue with.
Bachmann finishes the radio show, meets the press outside, then heads to the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines for a town hall meeting. Few candidates thrive in a morning assembly-style setting like this, with an audience that might not even be Republican. Bachmann doesn’t thrive. She looks up and down from a text to tell voters who she’s thinking of: “in George Bailey's terms, those who do the living and working and dying in this town.” She reminds us that she “led 40,000 Americans to Washington, D.C., to oppose Obamacare.” (This was the “Code Red” rally, two years ago—and “Obamacare” passed.) She compares herself to Margaret Thatcher, promising to be “America’s Iron Lady.” It’s a line she’ll use all day, one that echoes the title of the new, Meryl Streep-starring biopic about Thatcher.