Bachmann's Iowa strategy: Huck 2.0By Molly Ball
July 06. 2011 7:42PM
An upstart, grass-roots, personality-driven campaign that propels a charismatic social conservative to the front of the Iowa pack: Michele Bachmann's 2012 game plan is Mike Huckabee's 2008 strategy all over again, right down to the people involved.
The Minnesota GOP congresswoman's campaign team in Iowa, which she's been building steadily for months, looks a lot like she's getting the Huckabee band back together - minus the bass player, of course.
There are a few notable exceptions - fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday announced he'd hired Huckabee's daughter and former national political director, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as an adviser for next month's Ames straw poll, for example. But as a rule, Huckabee's team seems to be gravitating to Bachmann, a sign her conservative message and folksy charm could be tapping into that same ineffable caucus magic the former Arkansas governor rode to victory four years ago.
Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a major voice in tea party circles, is a former Huckabee supporter. One of her consultants, Wes Enos, served as political director for Huckabee's Iowa caucus campaign.
They're joined by Barbara Heki, an Iowa operative who volunteered for the former Arkansas governor in 2008 and who worked on a 2010 campaign that ousted state supreme court judges who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
Two national Bachmann aides, director Ed Rollins and press secretary Alice Stewart, are also veterans of the Huckabee campaign.
'She's going to have more of a grass-roots organization as opposed to an establishment organization,' said state Sen. Jack Whitver, who endorsed Bachmann recently after being swayed by her debate performance. 'But she is building a structure.'
Bachmann's Iowa organization so far pales in comparison with that of Pawlenty. The former governor, who has been campaigning in the state since late 2009, has collected numerous Iowa endorsements and signed up a team of well-pedigreed operatives, including another prominent former 2008 Huckabee adviser, Eric Woolson.
But there's no denying Bachmann's growing Iowa footprint. To Pawlenty's 10 state legislator endorsements, she now has five, including three state senators who announced their support last week.
Iowa watchers see parallels with 2008, when a determined juggernaut of a campaign - Mitt Romney's - blanketed the state with organizational resources, only to be upset by Huckabee's shoestring effort.
The crucial difference: A proven fundraiser, Bachmann, unlike Huckabee, will have money, giving her a chance to extend any momentum she draws from the Iowa results.
The Bachmann ranks in Iowa are continuing to grow: Her congressional chief of staff moved his family to the state last month, and the new campaign office in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale should fill up with staffers in the coming weeks.
'Is she doing enough? No. Is she doing more than people think? Yes,' said Steve Deace, a conservative writer and former radio host in Des Moines.
'She still needs to show she can put together a competent campaign that stays on message. But the team she has is the right sort of people for the Iowa caucuses. And issue wise, chemistry wise, with Iowa voters, she's the best fit of all the current candidates across the board in the race.'
Supporters use the Huckabee comparison to defend Bachmann against critics who say her operation in the first caucus state isn't ready for prime time. Some Iowa watchers, for example, have carped that the campaign isn't yet systematically compiling the lists of precinct supporters that are crucial to organizing for a caucus.
Businessman Herman 'Cain has more of an organization than Bachmann right now,' said one well-connected Iowa Republican who's skeptical Bachmann can get organized in time for the August straw poll in Ames. Though Cain has recently suffered some organizational setbacks in the state, he has a head start on Bachmann, in some respects: 'You at least see his people taking down names and addresses at events,' the Republican said. 'I've yet to see her folks do that.'
Sioux City social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who was state chairman of Huckabee's 2008 campaign, said those same types of criticisms - some of them valid - came up four years ago.
'Those are some of the same things we heard in 2007 regarding Huckabee,' he said. 'We just didn't have the funds to run a systematic, strategic caucus campaign. But we had a great ragtag army that showed up.'
And Bachmann's fundraising ability will give her the resources Huckabee didn't have, predicted Vander Plaats, who's still undecided on a 2012 candidate himself.
'She can go from zero to 60 in a heartbeat,' he said. 'You can have the best organization, and if you're not the best candidate, you're still not going to win. You can have a just OK organization, and if you have the best candidate, you'll win.'
Iowa appears ripe with opportunity for Bachmann. Even before formally launching her campaign, she was already tied for first place in the last Des Moines Register poll. She heads into the Ames straw poll with the overall front-runner, Mitt Romney, declining to participate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman not playing in the state at all.
Newt Gingrich had put together a sizable Iowa staff, but all of them jumped ship in his campaign's recent implosion. That leaves the opposition at Pawlenty; long-shot candidates like Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Cain; and potential late entrants, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
'It's very good timing for her the way it's set up,' said Rep. Steve King, the Iowa conservative who is a close friend of Bachmann but does not plan to endorse a presidential candidate before the straw poll. 'It leaves a real decent space for Michele Bachmann to work in.'
Bachmann's ideological kinship with Iowa caucus-goers gives her a natural advantage to build on, King said. 'She's come from a long ways back in the field,' he noted. 'At this point, she's not ahead of everybody else, but neither is she behind everybody else.'
And, King added, as someone who's worked closely with Bachmann in Congress: 'She's been underestimated many times.'
Iowa lobbyist Steve Roberts, a former state GOP chairman and national committeeman who isn't backing any candidate, said Bachmann comes into Iowa with a lot of buzz.
'She is an exciting candidate in a group of candidates that is considered rather bland,' Roberts said. 'Not that they're not capable, but she's got some pizazz. Plus, she's a native Iowan' who has a way with sound bites, he said.
By building up a professional campaign infrastructure with a conventional on-the-ground approach, Bachmann's making a clear contrast with the person she's most often compared with: Palin, who dipped into Iowa on Tuesday to attend the screening of a movie premiere but has yet to put together any of the basics of an operation for her much-speculated-about candidacy.
There's another 2008 candidate whose campaign Bachmann is earning comparisons to operationally: Barack Obama, whose out-of-nowhere Iowa caucus victory was based on an intensely dedicated grass-roots army.
'The key to Obama's tactics was he attracted people who wanted to work for him and help him,' Roberts said. 'Michele has that ability to get people fired up.'
Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.
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