DES MOINES, Iowa – When Michele Bachmann formally kicks off her bid for the White House on Monday in Iowa, she'll do so after allowing precious weeks to pass without having established the presence needed in the state to woo the GOP activists considered key to winning its leadoff caucuses.
Bachmann's slow open has left political players in the state wondering if the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota has the commitment to build the kind of grass-roots campaign and work to win voters in face-to-face meetings that have led past winners of the Iowa caucuses to success.
Her absence also has allowed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose no-nonsense style attracts social conservatives who might support Bachmann, to creep into the Iowa discussion and begin to set up a campaign infrastructure in the event he gets in.
"Missed opportunity and lost potential — she had months of free rein here to organize and mobilize," said Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa Republican Party executive director and longtime aide to Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King. "Now, it opens the door to Rick Perry. They've given him fertile ground to put an organization together."
Securing a foothold in Iowa is important for Bachmann. She's both a native of the state, having grown up in Waterloo, and a neighbor, having moved to Minnesota at age 12. Her popularity among Christian conservatives and tea party activists also make her a natural fit for the caucus electorate.
A strong finish in Iowa for the three-term congresswoman also could launch her as the key challenger to establishment Republicans in later nominating contests, most notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who hopes to draw on the same hometown relationship in New Hampshire that Bachmann has in Iowa.
Winning the Iowa caucuses traditionally requires a candidate to personally court the activists and party diehards who will attend the precinct-level political meetings on caucus night and literally stand up for their candidate. Successful candidates typically hire skilled organizers who know how to navigate the state's party landscape.
Some county-level Republican leaders said they have seen little evidence of outreach by Bachmann at a time when other candidates have dispatched staff to their monthly meetings.
"I haven't seen or heard anything out of the Bachmann camp I haven't initiated," said Ann Trimble-Ray, party chairwoman in GOP-heavy Sac County.
Veteran Iowa GOP operatives unaffiliated with any of the campaigns, such as Grant Young of Des Moines, wonder why Bachmann's Iowa campaign director, Kent Sorenson, flew to New Hampshire for the June 13 debate. Bachmann would have been better served keeping Sorenson in Iowa, where he could point activists to the rave reviews she received for her performance, he said.
Later that week, Bachmann also had no campaign staff at a deficit conference in Des Moines attended by roughly 1,000 fiscal conservatives.
"The key to a caucus campaign is getting the candidate in front of people, snagging their names and asking them what they thought," said Young, an Iowa Republican organizer for George W. Bush's 2000 caucus campaign and John McCain's campaign in 2008. "She had a good debate performance and nothing in place to catch it."
Bachmann formed a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission on the day of the debate, and announced her intention to run on stage. She will return to Iowa for the first time since on Monday, when she'll formally launch her campaign in her hometown of Waterloo, campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Stewart declined to discuss details of Bachmann's Iowa campaign plans, but said she expects to compete in the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames.
"We're comfortable and confident with the plans we have in place," Stewart said. "We do plan to participate and do well in the straw poll."
Bachmann has visited Iowa four times this year and hired two senior caucus staffers, although neither have extensive campaign experience. She also has landed Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a senior adviser to 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee.
Like Huckabee, Bachmann draws support from evangelical pastors and Christian home-school advocates. However, Huckabee spent much of the previous two years before the 2008 caucus getting to know Iowa Republicans, while Bachmann's effort began in January.
A three-term U.S. House member, Bachmann has been able to fuel her past campaigns with robust fundraising and infrequent public appearances. She raised $13.5 million toward her House campaign last year, the most of any 2010 candidate, but met her Democratic rival for three debates and only one before a live audience.
Bachmann traveled her district that runs from central Minnesota to the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities in a motor coach splashed with her name and picture. She often pulled up to events where supporters already were assembled, rather than unannounced stops at potentially unfriendly surroundings.
Although the events were tightly controlled, they could serve as a template for her caucus campaign. It is typical for campaigns to assemble groups of potential supporters in homes, businesses and churches for the candidate to meet, and Minnesota GOP leaders say Bachmann has a knack for the hand-to-hand campaigning often attributed to successful caucus campaigns.
During her trips to Iowa, Bachmann has held meetings with key caucus constituents, including ministers and tea party activists. She also has held telephone town hall meetings with would-be Iowa supporters.
"She is one of the more tireless campaigners I've ever seen. She just moves and moves and moves," said David Fitzsimmons, GOP chairman in Bachmann's district.
Bakst reported from St. Paul, Minn.
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