Sliding in the Polls, Bachmann Pushes Ahead with Her Red Meat Campaign in Iowa

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Alex Altman / TIME

Michele Bachmann cuts a side of beef at a campaign stop in a packing plant in Des Moines, Iowa, Sept. 20, 2011.

Des Moines, Iowa

Michele Bachmann is ambling through the aisles of a cramped meat locker in an industrial section of Des Moines. Massive sides of beef, weighing up to 950 lbs., hang from hooks near the ceiling and droplets of blood pool on the frigid floor. You can see your breath. Bundled in a blue coat, a string of pearls around her neck glittering in the low light, Bachmann trades small talk and gamely slices slabs of rib eye in the cutting room. “My grandfather owned a meat market in Iowa,” she tells the manager of the family-owned meatpacking plant, which has operated since 1869 and employs six workers. It is a perfectly scripted set piece for Bachmann, whose two-day swing through the Hawkeye State this week is designed to accentuate her blue-collar, Midwestern bona fides, her connection to Iowans and her commitment to the retail politicking it takes to win the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus this winter. When you want to win Iowa, this is the type of place you spend a drizzly Tuesday morning.

And Bachmann doesn’t just want to win Iowa. She has to. Her campaign strategy is predicated on a caucus victory, which could validate claims of national viability, open donors’ wallets and propel her forward with a critical win under her belt. A loss in her own wheelhouse would torpedo her candidacy.

Outside of Iowa, things aren’t going so well. Five weeks after a victory in the Ames Straw Poll capped an electric campaign launch, Bachmann is sliding badly. A new national USA Today/Gallup poll released on Tuesday saw Bachmann’s poll numbers plunge to 5%, far behind Rick Perry, at 31%, and Mitt Romney, who garnered 24%. She has been embroiled in controversies stemming from gaffes and misstatements, including the false suggestion at a recent debate that the HPV vaccine Perry mandated for teenage girls in Texas could cause mental disabilities.

The Minnesota congresswoman has also been damaged by acidic appraisals from unpaid adviser Ed Rollins, who stepped down from his role as campaign manager earlier this month citing “fatigue.” On Monday, he suggested that Bachmann would struggle to weather the grueling slog of a 50-state campaign.  “I think Michele — which always was the game plan — if she somehow could win Iowa, then she can get another look,” Rollins told MSNBC. “Right now she’s competing hard in Iowa. She doesn’t have the ability or the resources to go beyond Iowa at this point in time, where Perry and Romney with lots of money could go on to South Carolina, Arizona, Florida and other places.”

In the chill air of the meat locker, Bachmann shrugged off that argument, as well as her sagging poll numbers. “We saw another candidate emerge, and now of course that always changes the dynamic. But we’re doing exactly what we need to do,” she said. “We have sufficient resources to do what we’re doing, and that’s to be very competitive in this race. We’re delighted to be able to be here, we’ve got a wonderful experience in Iowa. We intend to be here…we intend to compete and go forward.”

In venues like these, it’s easy to see how Bachmann has stitched together the fervent constituency that delivered 4,800 votes at the Ames straw poll just 45 days after she declared her candidacy. She has a knack for steering any conversation to the scourge of “ObamaCare” within seconds, and peppers her remarks with searing indictments of an overbearing federal government: its burdensome red tape, its habit of picking winners and losers (she invoked the swelling black eye of the government’s ill-fated loan to failed solar company Solyndra) and the damage regulations inflict on the bottom line of small businesses. “One thing we learned today is that in a company that has five or six employees, one employee is dedicated just to deal with government rules and government regulations,” she said, brandishing a fat notebook filled with regulations the business, Amend Packing Company, has to comply with. “Government has gotten in and made it almost impossible to create a profit anymore.”

Though her national campaign may be floundering, Iowa insiders say it would be a mistake to dismiss Bachmann. “She has the best combination of a conservative record and the organization she needs,” says Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio talk-show host in Des Moines. Four years ago, Deace’s incessant hammering helped derail the Romney campaign. This time, he’s dismayed by what he sees from Perry, whom Deace recently took to task for a 2008 letter that appears to encourage Congress to pass a bank bailout. “He’s not who we thought he was,” Deace says. Bachmann, he adds, must “deliver the necessary kill shot. If Rick Perry’s body is still smoldering, he will beat Michele Bachmann. She will have to finish him off.”

Bachmann showed signs of adopting that strategy last week, when she blasted Perry over his immigration policy and the Gardasil vaccine mandate. But she went too far by parroting a myth about the vaccine’s side effects. The stubborn storyline that emerged wasn’t Perry’s adoption of a policy that is anathema to many conservatives; it was Bachmann’s tendency to fudge the facts. Bachmann may have the rhetorical kill shot in her, but her own candidacy could be the likeliest victim.