ORLANDO — Combating falling poll numbers and also-ran status in the GOP’s 2012 nomination battle, Michele Bachmann is unveiling a new brand of hardware.
“Behind this little blue jacket you need to know there’s a titanium spine” the Minnesota Republican told an ecstatic gathering of Florida conservatives on Friday.
It’s a move she’s busted out before on the stump in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. She turns, points to her back, and touts her uncompromising conservative beliefs.
But the shtick is now central to an urgent new strategy, as Bachmann struggles to remain relevant in a race dominated by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, her new rival for the affections of the Tea Party.
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While the frontrunners have been moderating their tones to win Republican primary voters looking for the most electable candidate, Bachmann is doubling-down on her image as an aggressive culture warrior ready to take down a vulnerable president.
“It’s a strategic decision on the part of her campaign, and I think it may be a smart one,” said Citizens United President David Bossie, a conservative icon since his landmark lawsuit loosening restrictions on corporate spending in elections.
Bossie, whose political organization has given money to Bachmann and Perry (though not Romney), said he considers Bachmann a “serious player” who can’t yet be counted out of a primary race that will be decided months down the road by some of the party’s most conservative voters.
Still, there are plenty of skeptical voices among the gathering’s conservative rank-and-file, who are widely expected to break for Perry in Saturday’s Florida GOP straw poll.
“I knew when Perry came in it would be tough for Bachmann to keep her edge,” said Palm Coast business owner John Spina. “The concern is whether she can beat Obama.”
But in reenergized language that recalls the civil rights era, Bachmann is arguing strenuously that the Republican Party doesn’t need a moderate to beat President Obama, whose own poll numbers have been faltering with the economy.
'This is our time’
“We don’t settle this time,” Bachmann told thousands of GOP activists at a regional convention of the American Conservative Union on Friday. “We don’t settle and sit next to the wall, or go to the back of the bus. We conservatives have to say 'No. This is our year. This is our time. And we’re going to have our nominee.’”
The up-shift to the right fits into Bachmann’s continued focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where some analysts believe she might have reached her zenith with last month’s straw poll victory in Ames. Counting on the abundance of evangelical Republican caucus-goers, her aides say this “contrast” with the presumed frontrunners will only become more pronounced.
Rather than a two-person contest between Romney and Perry, Bachmann campaign manager Keith Nahigian said he sees it as a race between two types of persons.
“There’s a type of person that has clunkers on their record, and then you have the other ones that are straight and, non-wavering on their records their whole career. I think that’s the contrast you’re going to start seeing,” Nahigian said.
In Bachmann’s view, Romney’s clunkers include his evolving position against abortion rights and the Massachusetts health insurance mandate that was the model for Obama’s health care law, which she has sworn to repeal. The conservative rap on Perry is his opposition to a border fence and his support for educational benefits for the children of illegal immigrants. In the two recent Florida debates, Bachmann also has been dueling with the Texas governor over his vaccine mandate to protect girls against a sexually-transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer.
Even as Bachmann has been forced to play defense for over-the-top rhetoric that frequently misstates facts, she sees an historic opportunity for the ascendant conservative moment in the Republican Party, and for herself in 2012.
“Every four years when we have a presidential race, we are repeatedly told as conservatives that ... we have to give the nomination to a moderate.”
If Bachmann found a new campaign mantra in Florida, that is it: “If there was any election where we conservatives don’t settle, it’s this election,” she said. “This election we can have it all. Don’t settle.”
To Bachmann that means making a virtue of the outspoken conservatism that has made her a household name in American politics, even if it’s at the cost of raising questions about her electability in a general election.
In a rousing display of fire and will, Bachmann had Florida Republicans on their feet when she called herself a candidate “who’s not ashamed to stand for marriage, who’s not ashamed to stand for life, who’s not ashamed to stand for religious liberty who’s not ashamed of the Tea Party.”
Whether or not her consistency will pay dividends for her in the Iowa caucuses or beyond, conservative leaders say she has established herself as a force in their growing national movement. “She’s always been there for us,” said Al Cardenas , chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Meanwhile, even amid bad polls and bad press, Bachmann’s camp is making it clear that her bid for the presidency is far from over.
Asked whether she might stay in the race merely to maintain a national platform, Nahigian replied, “She’s in it to win it, period.”