By Josh Lederman - 10/11/11 09:30 AM EDT
Mixed messages emanating from the presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) signal an operation struggling to maintain the momentum needed to sustain itself until the make-or-break Iowa caucuses and fighting against the perception that the bottom is falling out.
On the surface, Bachmann and her aides insist everything is going according to plan and they are taking a long-term view of what is needed to carry the campaign through the caucuses in January.
“Your assessment is completely inaccurate,” Bachmann told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday when asked whether her campaign was imploding.
Bachmann had reason to be hopeful after her early debate performances won her accolades and she came in first in the Iowa straw poll in August. Her poll numbers surged soon after.
But since then, her numbers have slid, and subsequent straw polls have brought no similar success. The entrance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and rise of business Herman Cain have siphoned off Tea Party-inspired voters who earlier flocked to Bachmann.
A Washington Post/Bloomberg poll released Monday had Bachmann tied for fifth place among the GOP field, with 4 percent of the vote.
“Things go up and down week to week. I’m not worried,” said Bob Harris, the conservative operative behind Keep Conservatives United, a political action committee that is raising money and airing ads on behalf of the Minnesota congresswoman.
Bachmann tied with Perry for fourth place on Saturday in a straw poll held at the Values Voter Summit — a conference comprising the socially conservative voters who have traditionally made up the most loyal component of Bachmann’s base.
A string of departures has also called attention to the campaign’s perceived struggles. After losing its manager in September, the campaign confirmed last week that its pollster would soon leave, while a top policy adviser would return to Bachmann’s congressional office. And there have been reports that Bachmann’s fundraising operation is faltering.
Meanwhile, Bachmann and her aides have worked diligently to reverse the course of the growing narrative that the wheels are falling off the cart.
On Monday, Bachmann’s campaign announced it was bringing on former Bush appointee Ron Thomas to advise its South Carolina efforts and elevating Guy Short to national political director. Bachmann sent supporters a campaign update on Saturday titled “Campaign Momentum,” claiming that support was mounting and the campaign was benefiting from an upswing.
And at the end of September, Bachmann appeared at the evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and likened herself to the “comeback kid.”
“She’s in a position where delusion is presenting itself as the only opportunity, and it exists only in her mind,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist not working for any of the GOP candidates. “Whenever you’re in the position to start referring to yourself as the comeback kid, that’s an acknowledgement that things aren’t going real well.”
Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart said the signs that support is growing are real and tangible.
“The pure feedback we’re getting from people. The crowds have been good. People will come up to us afterwards and say they were undecided before, and now they’re 100 percent on our team,” she said.
Stewart said the campaign is sticking to the strategy it put in place at the very beginning: Focus on retail politics, give undecided voters a chance to hear from Bachmann firsthand and remind the country not to settle for a less conservative candidate just because he is perceived as more electable.
“We’re not looking at it on a week-by-week basis. We’re looking at, What do we have to do to carry the momentum through the Iowa caucuses?” Stewart said.
The next big test for whether Bachmann can sustain the needed momentum will come in a matter of days, when fundraising reports from her and the other candidates are scheduled to be released.