It was supposed to have been a big night for Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, headlining a Republican dinner in Iowa’s largest city ahead of a potential presidential campaign announcement next month.
Then a late vote in Congress kept her in Washington last night and a political shadow appeared, as Sarah Palin announced a multiday East Coast campaign-style bus tour that will kick off with a May 29 appearance at a motorcycle rally for veterans in Washington.
Palin’s “One Nation Tour” is stirring speculation that she will enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination, in which she and Bachmann would compete for much the same constituency.
In a statement on her political action committee’s website, Palin, 47, said the nation was at a “critical turning point” and she wants to help Americans to “connect with our founders, our patriots, our challenges and victories to clearly see our way forward.”
“I think she is trying to make a pre-emptive strike to maybe convince Bachmann not to run,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.
The Iowa caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, are the first event in the 2012 presidential nominating contests. Bachmann, whom Palin helped to boost onto the national stage, stands to be especially hurt if the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee enters the race.
Palin’s star power would likely allow her to quickly mobilize a campaign in Iowa if she decides to run, Bystrom said.
“She almost has a shadow operation here,” she said.
Splitting the vote
Bystrom said that if both women were to run in Iowa, neither would win the caucuses because they would split the vote of Tea Party activists and social conservatives.
“The more it is split by potential candidates, it would probably mean that neither of them would win the caucuses,” she said.
The Republican field appears to be solidifying. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, real estate developer Donald Trump and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have all announced in recent weeks that they won’t enter the contest.
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, so his decision not to run provides an opening for those who can appeal to the social conservatives who were his most loyal supporters.
“That left a huge space in Iowa for someone to pick up where he left off,” Bystrom said.
In the 2008 Republican caucuses, 60 percent of participants described themselves in entrance polls as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Bachmann, 55, had been scheduled to speak in Des Moines, Iowa, before she was delayed by the House vote to extend expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act. She has said that she will make her presidential intentions known in June.
Via speakerphone, Bachmann told reporters in Iowa last night that she wasn’t concerned that her supporters overlap with those of Palin’s.
“Our decision is unique, and we are independent of what any other candidates decide,” she said. “I consider Governor Palin a friend and I have great respect for Governor Palin. But again, I don’t believe any two candidates are interchangeable.”
Should she get into the race, Bachmann said, she would make her formal announcement in Waterloo, Iowa, where she was born.
“Being born in Iowa gives every advantage, every advantage a girl would want to have,” she said. “There is no downside to being born in Iowa.”
Ready to run
Bachmann said she is preparing for the race. “We already have hired staff in South Carolina, in New Hampshire, in Iowa,” she said. “We have people on the ground.”
She later addressed the dinner audience in Des Moines on a video link that periodically cut in and out. Campaigning in the state is heating up 11 weeks before the Iowa Straw Poll, a carnival-like political event sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party and designed to test the organizational ability of presidential candidates.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty formally entered the race May 23 with an announcement in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was scheduled to visit Iowa last week for the first time this year; his campaign said that he would announce his candidacy June 2.
Spotlighting her interest in Iowa, Bachmann placed an ad on the home page of the Des Moines Register’s website that encouraged Republicans to attend her speech. The ad said it was paid for by her congressional campaign fund.
She was also scheduled to appear on “Iowa Press,” a statewide public television show that is a frequent stop for presidential candidates.
Republican activists said they were eager to see Bachmann join the field, and think that she could emerge as a strong contender.
“She does well with social conservatives and fiscal conservatives and she does well with the Tea Party people,” said Kevin McLaughlin, chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, Iowa’s largest. “She certainly will be a player.”
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who is advising Pawlenty, said his candidate doesn’t need to win Iowa in order to stay alive as the nominating process moves to other states.
“If the party establishment thinks the winner of the caucuses is not seen as a plausible president of the United States, that means there continues to be a path forward for someone else,” he said.
Behind in polls
Nationally, in a Gallup poll released last week, Bachmann trails Romney, Palin and other official and prospective Republican candidates. Romney had 17 percent and Palin was second with 15 percent in the survey of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Bachmann received 5 percent.
Also ahead of her were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas (10 percent) former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (9 percent), businessman and one-time talk radio host Herman Cain (8 percent) and Pawlenty (6 percent).
The poll was taken May 20-24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
In an April 29 interview, Bachmann said her strategy would be to marry support from socially conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina with that of Tea Party backers in New Hampshire.
She has become an uncompromising spokeswoman for conservative positions on social and fiscal issues, prodding Republican leaders not to cooperate with President Barack Obama’s administration. Still, inflammatory comments she has made — she suggested during the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama may have “anti-American views” and recently compared the national debt to the Holocaust — have raised questions about her prospects as a presidential candidate.
Other potential candidates for the Republican nomination include former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who resigned his post as U.S. ambassador to China on April 30; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned-Republican. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has declared his candidacy.