By Niall Stanage - 08/23/11 04:37 PM EDT
The only Republican presidential candidate to have won any significant contest so far cannot — at least according to the conventional wisdom — really become the party’s nominee.
Doubts that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) can defeat President Obama or even win her party’s nomination have persisted since before she entered the race, and they haven’t diminished with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) entering the race.
“I think they both appeal to the same portion of the Republican Party,” said Andy Brehm, a Republican commentator in Minnesota. “I don’t think there are many people trying to choose between [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney [R] and Michele Bachmann.”
Yet some observers think Bachmann, the winner of the Ames straw poll, is being dismissed a little too hastily.
“Is there a path to the nomination for her? Yes,” pollster Scott Rasmussen told The Hill. “If Rick Perry does not catch fire and Mitt Romney is unable to command enough enthusiasm, Michele Bachmann is there, potentially, as an alternative.”
A Gallup poll of registered voters released Monday showed Bachmann within striking distance, only 4 percentage points behind Obama in a head-to-head matchup.
But the poll also pointed to Bachmann’s difficulties. Three GOP candidates — Romney, Perry and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) — fared better than Bachmann in the survey.
Worse, Bachmann was the only one of the four GOP candidates to trail Obama among voters who identified themselves as independent.
“[For her to win,] she would have to perform well, and everything would have to break right for her,” Rasmussen said. “But she has a clearer shot than some of the other candidates, like [former Utah Gov.] Jon Huntsman [R], for example.”
The vexed question of electability, especially on a national scale, hangs over Bachmann. It remains an open question whether the general public can be won over by someone who has previously said it is “part of Satan” to use the word “gay” to describe homosexuality, and suggested that members of Congress should be investigated for possible anti-American views.
The Gallup survey will add ammunition to those who doubt Bachmann can win.
“Ultimately, Republicans’ first priority is to nominate someone who can beat Barack Obama,” Brehm said. “She is just not the most electable candidate. She has said some things that would cause a lot of concern to the independent voters we need.”
Still, others question whether those Republicans who place electability above all else will carry the day over their more ideologically committed brethren.
“You’d think people have these long discussions about, ‘Is this person electable?’” said Wy Spano, a program director at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “But to more and more people on the Republican side, that doesn’t seem to matter. They just seem to think: ‘We’re going to go with what our heart tells us.’”
If electability is one challenge for Bachmann, another is her tendency to put her foot in her mouth, misstating everything from the location of key Revolutionary War battles to the date of Elvis Presley’s birthday.
But the ridicule that once attended her — liberal critics frequently dismissed her as a Sarah Palin “clone” — seems to have fallen off lately, and some ideological opponents now offer grudging respect.
“She certainly isn’t the favorite [to win the nomination]. But, in fairness, on the things that have been within her control — the debates, Ames, fundraising — she has done a good job,” Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said.
Bachmann’s recent victory in the straw poll was evidence of the strong grassroots approval she can engender and her ability to harness it, albeit on a very localized scale.
Critics point out that she may not get the momentum she hopes out of Iowa. In the last cycle, neither the winner of the 2007 Ames straw poll (Romney) nor the winner of the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee) won the nomination.
But Bachmann has proven adept at tapping into the anti-incumbent, anti-government sentiment roiling the nation — despite the fact that she is, of course, in her third term in Congress. The stridency of her attacks upon President Obama is matched by a palpable disdain for Washington in general, both of which burnish her “outsider” credentials.
Those credentials were further polished during the debt-ceiling debate. While other Republicans seemed to try to simultaneously placate their most conservative supporters and acknowledge the risks of a U.S. default, Bachmann stuck with a starker position: She would not vote for any bill that would raise the debt ceiling, she said.
It was just the sort of approach guaranteed to give establishment Republicans heartburn — and to delight the Tea Party activists who are flexing their muscle within the GOP.
Bachmann “has really been a Tea Party leader,” said Sal Russo, the California-based chief strategist of the Tea Party Express group. “She is not ‘the’ Tea Party leader, because there isn’t one. But she has been outspoken and out-front on Tea Party issues.”
Bachmann’s Tea Party appeal has helped her rack up impressive fundraising numbers, even before she commenced her presidential run. In the two years leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, she raised $13.5 million, an enormous sum for a congresswoman holding no leadership role.
In the second quarter of this year, she raised $4.2 million for her White House campaign, way behind Romney’s $18.25 million, but more than enough to maintain her status as a viable candidate.
That, in itself, is evidence of the changing nature of the conservative movement, at least according to some observers.
When it came to winnowing the field, Spano said, “Republicans used to depend on the monied, business interests — who were quite conservative but didn’t go quite so far as others — to sort things out in the end.”
Spano, who said he makes “no bones” about his Democratic allegiances, added that “the whole idea that [the establishment] can bury a fringe-type candidate is losing its luster. Someone like Michele Bachmann can generate money and stay in the game a lot longer than we think.”