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Bachmann faces complications in Iowa

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
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Bachmann: 'President showing insecurity'
  • Bachmann won critical straw poll on same day Rick Perry entered GOP presidential race
  • Perry has surged to the front of GOP polls while Bachmann has slipped
  • Bachmann and Palin appeal to the same conservative voters
  • Bachmann advisers deny she doesn't operate well outside protective bubble

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) -- It's difficult to find an Iowa Republican who thinks Michele Bachmann has an easy road ahead.

Terry Kach is one of them.

The Ankeny retiree traveled to Ames last month, put on a bright orange "Bachmann Volunteer" T-shirt, and helped the Minnesota congresswoman to a dominant victory in the Iowa Straw Poll.

But as he watched Bachmann speak to a small Tea Party Express rally in Des Moines on Wednesday, her first appearance in the state since her big straw poll weekend, Kach explained how Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entrance into the presidential race has complicated Bachmann's chances.

"I think Perry took some of the pizzazz away from Bachmann," said Kach, who noted that he could switch his support to Perry. "She has got time to get some of it back before the caucuses. It's going to depend on how Rick Perry presents himself from now on. But they are two of a kind, so they are going to take some votes away from each other."

Perry's entrance and impressive surge to the front of the polls, both nationally and in Iowa, have unquestionably altered the political terrain for Bachmann.

Her path forward may become even more daunting in the coming weeks if another prominent conservative, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, decides to join the race.

And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could also shake up the Iowa race if he decides to step up his campaign efforts here in order to blunt Perry's momentum.

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It was just four weeks ago that Bachmann stood alone as the Iowa front-runner and the darling of both tea party activists and social conservatives who typically attend the caucuses, the opening act of the Republican nomination fight.

Today, Republicans in the state are openly wondering if Bachmann can withstand the Perry juggernaut and survive the growing level of media scrutiny that has accompanied her swift rise.

Bachmann is also fighting the troubling storyline, already gaining traction within the Iowa political class, that she has difficulty functioning outside a tightly controlled bubble of advisers and aggressive security personnel.

Her advisers forcefully reject the accusation.

"This idea that she is a diva is absurd," said state Sen. Kent Sorenson, Bachmann's campaign chairman in the state. "She stays there after every event. She shakes everybody's hands. She will answer questions one-on-one for any voter who approaches. People who are trying to paint her as being in a bubble are absurd."

The caucuses are at least four months away -- an eternity given the unpredictable nature of the 2012 cycle so far -- and Perry still has to show that he can maintain his newfound popularity through a gauntlet of nationally televised debates and attacks from his GOP rivals.

But the stakes are already getting higher for Bachmann in Iowa.

Her campaign signaled this week that Bachmann intends to dial back her efforts in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, putting even greater pressure on the candidate to perform well in the leadoff caucus state.

Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart said the campaign is "working hard to get delegates in each of the early states," but her advisers have made clear from the outset of the campaign that her hopes of winning the nomination rest on winning Iowa.

Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist working for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said the arrival of Perry is "a big additional challenge" for Bachmann in Iowa.

"Bachmann is no stranger to challenges," Albrecht said in an e-mail. "Her solid debate performances and impressive win at the Ames straw poll demonstrate that she is a serious candidate. Rick Perry will force her to take it up a few notches, and it remains to be seen if she will be viable with him in the race. This, as they say, is why you play the game."

Even some Bachmann supporters acknowledge that Perry is no Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who dropped out of the race after failing to match Bachmann's appeal to grass-roots conservatives.

John Kline, a Bachmann volunteer who attended the Des Moines tea party rally this week, said he has been working phone banks for the candidate in the weeks since her straw poll victory.

He said "80%" of the targeted Bachmann voters he calls are still backing the Minnesotan and preparing to caucus for her. But some other Bachmann fans are now eyeing Perry, he said.

Kline, a retiree from Des Moines, said the Texas governor will "definitely" make it harder for Bachmann to win Iowa.

"He came out and went right to the head of the class," he said. "He is presidential looking, too, which counts. He has got a good message. He has a great state down there that's got great employment."

Other Bachmann backers were far less charitable when asked about Perry.

Sorenson, her state chairman, blasted Perry's "horrible" record on immigration policy and said his 2007 attempt to mandate HPV vaccinations for sixth-grade girls in Texas is sure to chafe Christian conservatives.

He also jabbed Perry for supporting Al Gore's Democratic presidential bid in 1988.

"When you look at his record in politics, it's not as stellar as it seems," he told CNN. "Was Al Gore ever conservative? It's real easy when you announce your campaign to come out like a flash in a pan. But can you sustain it? I believe Michele can sustain it. Otherwise I'd be wasting my time."

Brad Zaun, another state senator working behind-the-scenes for Bachmann, said the campaign has a head start on Perry thanks to its straw poll efforts.

"We have identified hard-core supporters of Michele in all 99 counties," he said. "The straw poll forced us to do that work, whereas Rick Perry hasn't had that opportunity to do that sort of work."

Both Zaun and Sorenson said Bachmann's Iowa game plan remains the same as it was on the day she entered the race in June: to introduce herself to voters and deliver a consistently conservative message.

Steve Deace, an influential Iowa conservative radio host, said he doubts that Bachmann can compete with Perry's sophisticated campaign organization and deep pockets.

But he said Bachmann can still win Iowa if she doubles down on her outsider message and focuses on "issues and governing philosophy," while contrasting her conservative record with Perry's.

"The more this becomes about who looks most electable and most presidential, the more problematic this becomes for Michele Bachmann," Deace told CNN.

"She doesn't fit the profile of who we vote for for president," he added. "Perry does. She has to get out from behind the talking points, stop listening to her national people and really become the grass-roots conservative revolutionary that won the straw poll."