The Iron Lady of Iowa

Michele Bachmann tries to remind Hawkeye voters why they loved her so much back in August.

Michele Bachmann and supporters stand for a CNN interview in Nevada, Iowa.
Michele Bachmann and supporters stand for a CNN interview in Nevada, Iowa.

Photograph by David Weigel.

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.

There are only a few audience questions. Nicole Cavreriva, a skeptical Democrat, asks how Bachmann will be more effective than President Obama at working with Congress.

“It’s been highly contentious,” nods Bachmann. “As a matter of fact, we’ve been threatened eight times this year with a government shutdown.” Is it the start of a mea culpa about how House Republicans have governed? No, it’s the start of Bachmann’s pledge to elect 13 Republican senators to break filibusters. A more sympathetic questioner asks her again: What if Republicans don’t win 13 seats. “O, ye of little faith!” says Bachmann.

“I guess it’s a logical answer,” shrugs Cavreriva after the speech. “She’s the new Margaret Thatcher. Who knew?” The Republicans in the audience are kinder, but they’re not talking about caucusing for her. “I like Romney’s business experience,” explains Mark Kron. Bachmann keeps saying she was a tax lawyer and a small business owner (that would be the Bachmann Clinic, the ex-gay facility), but it doesn’t sway him.

Bachmann moves right on, taking her campaign bus to the steps of the state capitol. It drives by Kent Sorenson, who’s doing a Fox News hit and reasserting his integrity. It parks outside the building, dark blue against tan stone, as the candidate talks to the Iowa Association of Mortgage Brokers. The bus has been repainted with the slogan, “Win Win Win,” a phrase Bachmann used at a debate to one-up Herman Cain on his 9-9-9 plan. Bachmann is very much on her game at this stop, conversant on the facts. “Under Dodd-Frank, only 26 percent of the rules have been written so far,” she says. “The banking industry is a bad investment right now.”

Bachmann finishes her county tour in central Iowa, ending it in Nevada, aides showing off a cake that commemorates the accomplishment. These aides enter the diner, apologizing, because Bachmann needs to do a TV hit before visiting. Can volunteers come outside to hold signs behind her? They can. They stand there as Bachmann argues with Wolf Blitzer about Sorensongate.

“I’ve got my phone, my phone log that shows I had a conversation with Kent Sorenson,” she says. “That’s when he told me, a number of other people on our campaign, that he was offered money by the Ron Paul campaign.” At the break, she holds up her white iPhone for reporters, who snap pictures of it, Sorenson’s personal number clearly visible from a Tuesday, 3:11 p.m. call.

What good does it do her to close out Iowa with a he-said-she-showed-phone-logs stick fight? It builds some sympathy. Voters I talk to immediately assume that Sorenson is a cad, and Bachmann was wronged. State Sen. Robert Bacon shows up at the diner to be polite, even though he’s endorsed Rick Santorum. When I ask about Sorenson, he leans back, as if recovering from a hit to the kidneys.

“I need to talk to Kent,” he says. “I don’t know what happened. But I don’t like to hear things like ‘everybody’s for sale.’ I can speak for myself, I’m not for sale.”

Bachmann enters the diner, gets handed a giant serrated knife for cake-cutting, and waves it around for cameras. “This is what I’m bringing to the White House!” She cuts a few slices, repeats the “Iron Lady” line and a short stump speech, then apologizes: She has to speed out for an interview with Simon Conway, another sympathetic radio host. “I have to do it in studio,” she explains. The floor is ceded to Tamara Scott, Bachmann’s Iowa co-chair, who recently warned that gay marriage could lead to legal marriage between people and “Eiffel Tower”-like objects. She talks for 20 minutes about how, despite what people may think, it’s all right, as far as the Bible’s concerned, for conservatives to elect a woman president. “Think of Queen Esther,” she says. “And Jesus was revolutionary in the way he treated women.”

The diners, around 40 of them, generally like Bachmann. But they’re miffed that she left so quickly. One of them, a Vietnam veteran, wanted to ask her whether or not she would bring back the draft. (He’s for it.) Most of them will miss the Bachmann appearance on the radio, which I get to hear on the drive out. Bachmann is preceded on the show by Rick Santorum, who simply calls in. He gets easier questions than her. She spends so much time talking about Sorenson that the host cuts a caller off.

“We’ve gotten enough questions about that,” says Conway. “There are so many other issues to discuss.”