AMES, Iowa — Rep. Michele Bachmann raised the stakes for herself in the Hawkeye State this past weekend.
“The whole thing could get decided in the straw poll!” she predicted with enthusiasm as she barnstormed for support and collected data on GOP voters who might help her deliver a strong showing in next month’s critical test.
As the Minnesota Congresswoman introduced herself as someone with conservative street cred, members of Team Bachmann were ready with iPads. They smiled at Iowans fanning themselves and watching the hullaballoo created by Bachmann’s small entourage. “Do you have your tickets yet to the Ames straw poll? We’ll send them to you.”
With a few quick taps on the screen, the Bachmann organizers had entered names, phone numbers and addresses and had even gotten in a question: Will you consider backing her in the caucuses next February? Within seconds, the all-important details were uploaded to Bachmann’s database.
Those not willing to sign on just yet were handed slick “Meet Me in Ames” fliers, sheets that offered rides to the Aug. 13 Ames straw poll at the Hilton Coliseum and declared that Bachmann will “stand for our shared conservative values.”
She wasn’t bashful in asking for support.
“We can do this if you are onboard. We can do this if you not only come out to the straw poll but if you organize and bring everyone with you that you possibly can,” Bachmann told about 100 curious Iowans under a blazing sun on Sunday.
In Clive, Bachmann told one voter her Iowa support has surpassed the national frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R). “But we take nothing for granted, we need your help,” she said.
The lone stump speech Bachmann delivered over the weekend was a smorgasbord of red-meat rhetoric. She said that as president, she’d never appoint an activist judge and promised that no teleprompters or czars would follow her to “the Bachmann White House.”
The “Meet Me in Ames” tour included multiple stops at fairgrounds and found Bachmann squeezing babies’ cheeks and sampling local fare. “This is exactly what a chicken should look like,” she said in Knoxville, holding the bird. A few minutes earlier, she had been petting a goat.
Bachmann said in an interview that the weekend tour was meant to “actually get one-on-one in people’s worlds.”
“I feel like when I go back to Washington, D.C., I’m not just in that bubble of the D.C. mindset, I know exactly what people in Jasper County are telling me,” Bachmann told Roll Call and the Des Moines Register on her campaign bus just after greeting voters at the fairgrounds in Colfax.
State Sen. Brad Zaun, who lost a challenge to Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) last cycle, introduced Bachmann during the Saturday stops. State Sen. Kent Sorenson picked up the job Sunday, presenting the Congresswoman to diners at the Machine Shed, where $10.99 gets you a buffet with unlimited omelettes, bacon, biscuits and sausage gravy.
“Farming is everyone’s bread and butter” read a banner outside the restaurant, which seats more than 500.
The restaurant was so large that Bachmann didn’t get to every corner. One woman instead came to her and reported back to her table of seven shortly after speaking with Bachmann: “She’s standing firm on the debt ceiling.”
That was the hot topic during the weekend, with Iowans at every stop asking Bachmann what she will do when the House votes to increase the debt limit.
Inside the Jaarsma Bakery in the Dutch-heritage town of Pella, Galen Redshaw of Johnston had a message for the Congresswoman. “Keep holding their feet to the fire on this debt thing,” he said.
After eyeing a snow-cone stand at yet another fair, Bachmann turned her attention to Bud Kernes, a garbage-truck driver from Pleasant Hill. He asked about spending, and she traced a line up and down the back of her yellow dress. “This is a titanium spine, that’s what you need to know,” she told him.
Bachmann was born in Waterloo and spent her adolescence in the Hawkeye State, and she didn’t let anyone forget it.
When people apologized to her for the sweltering temperatures, which reached 97 on Saturday, she laughed and told them not to worry: “I grew up in Iowa— it’s July!”
Iowa voters, who famously wait to meet candidates multiple times before deciding who to support, seemed receptive to Bachmann’s message.
But some of her slip-ups chased her around the state.
Ron Houlihan of West Des Moines, for example, approached Bachmann as she left a festival in Clive to ask why she signed a controversial pledge from the Family Leader, a social conservative group.
“I believe in marriage, that’s all,” Bachmann said before hopping on the bus.
That didn’t satisfy Houlihan, who said he will probably support Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the caucuses. “I don’t know why someone would sign something that’s anti-gay,” he said.
Her call to “beat Obama” in 2012 received the loudest cheers during her speech in Ames. Barack Obama’s presidential trajectory began in the Hawkeye State in 2008 with a win at the caucuses, and he went on to win Iowa in the general election. But that feel-good victory has faded, and several Iowans who backed Obama last time around said they are done.
Retired bar owner Harry Koopmans of Pella said he’s unlikely to back Obama a second time around.
“We’re in a mess. I think he’s trying,” Koopmans said. “But [I’m] not sure I’ll do it again.”
Sitting on the next bench over, Donna VandeKraats, sheepishly admitted she supported Obama in the general election.
“Yes, I voted for the bad one,” she said. “At that time everybody was so against [President George W.] Bush. But now you’ve got him, and he’s worse.”
Before Bachmann can turn her attention to Obama, she needs to top the Republican field.
At multiple stops Bachmann was asked about ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), a staunch social conservative who is banking on Iowa if he wants to continue.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is operating in much the same way, and this week he begins a major Iowa tour leading up to the straw poll.
But Bachmann obviously is looking beyond Iowa. When a Florida resident visiting the Hawkeye State told Bachmann where she’s from, the Congresswoman smiled wide: “Oh, we’ll be down in Florida.”
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.