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CEDAR FALLS, IOWA - Tea Party leader Judd Saul paced in front of his small gathering here a few days ago and declared that a cabal of world leaders has anointed Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be the next president.
"The media is slobbering all over him, just like they did Barack Obama,'' Saul said, adding that he believes Perry has the nod of an informal association known as the Bilderberg Group. "They chose Barack Obama,'' he said in an interview. "Now we're getting Rick Perry.''
Downstairs in the same conference center, Republican Party activists planning events for Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses were openly yearning for Rep. Michele Bachmann to mingle more with regular Iowans and flesh out her rhetoric with meatier policies. They like her energy but want to see a stronger campaign.
"She is a dynamo,'' said Don Wood of Cedar Falls. But Black Hawk County Republican Chairman Mac McDonald said: "There's not a lot of substance.''
In the upstairs-downstairs world of Iowa politics -- from people who are as "out there" as Saul declares to being, to party regulars who just want to oust President Obama --Bachmann may be down, but she's far from out.
Since narrowly defeating U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, Perry's entrance and his popularity with social conservatives have sent Bachmann's polling numbers into a tailspin.
According to a national USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday, Perry was favored by 31 percent of respondents, Romney 24 percent, Paul 13 percent and Bachmann with 5 percent.
She was back in Iowa Monday to tour several local factories and talk to employees. Bachmann supporters hope the new round of campaigning will boost her sagging numbers. She placed fourth in a California Republican Party straw poll over the weekend even after she flew out to address the convention.
But in the face-to-face politicking of Iowa, polling trends are seen as interesting but not determinative. Last week, activists applauded her attack on Perry for his order requiring girls to be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus, but some worried she went over the line in suggesting the vaccine itself might be dangerous.
Race in flux
Some have long awaited the entry of Perry, who blasted through five cities here last week.
"Many Republicans were searching for a candidate outside the original seven. They finally got one,'' said Steve Armstrong, Linn County Republican chairman.
Cindy Golding, Republican co-chair of Linn County, senses "media manipulation" in the emerging two-man narrative between Perry and Mitt Romney, which she said overlooks experienced candidates such as Bachmann, Paul, Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. She does not see Bachmann's campaign being ended prematurely by a Perry juggernaut.
"I think Michele has tremendously solid supporters here in Iowa,'' Golding said. "I believe they will be very vocal come caucuses.''
Golding said the path is clear for a candidate to find the message that ignites a "battle cry." But Golding questioned Bachmann's post-debate focus on the safety of vaccines. While that is a hot issue among many parents, she said, the presidential campaign is "not the venue" for that debate. She said Bachmann must "differentiate herself from the other contenders without destroying their credibility in the process.''
On Monday, Bachmann's former campaign manager, veteran operative Ed Rollins, said the candidate will have to focus on Iowa out of necessity. "She doesn't have the ability or the resources to go beyond Iowa at this point in time," Rollins said, "where Perry and Romney, with lots of money, can go into South Carolina, Arizona, Florida and other places."
Although Bachmann represents Minnesota in Congress, she grew up in Iowa, launched her campaign here and is counting on Iowa as her firewall in what promises to be a brutal race for the nomination.
Floyd Junker of Waterloo, attending Saul's meeting, said the woman they know as "Michele" has made a favorable impression.
"She's like one of us -- I just trust her,'' Junker said. But Carol Hanson of Cedar Falls, also attending the Tea Party meeting, said Bachmann was at the "top of my list" until she voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act. Hanson gave Ron Paul her vote in the straw poll.
No more rock star
Among the regular Republican activists meeting downstairs, Bachmann's debate performance was warmly reviewed. They were not happy with what they viewed as an overdone appearance at their August fundraiser.
"She came in as a rock star,'' said McDonald. "Iowans are face-to-face people; they're not groupies.'' McDonald also faults Bachmann for not having specific plans for turning the nation around. "That's hurt her, not just from an Iowa standpoint, but from a national standpoint,'' he said.
Christopher Larimer, a student of the caucus system and an associate professor in political science at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, said Perry and Bachmann are going after the same group of socially conservative voters, and Bachmann faces an unstated gender bias that makes it difficult for female candidates to be aggressive. He predicts it will be a struggle for her to regain momentum over Perry, and suggested that her straw-poll victory "may have been the peak.''
Iowa's widely scattered precinct caucuses require considerable grass-roots organizing, and Perry is just beginning that process. But last week he brought on several veterans of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's effort, including three of Pawlenty's Iowa field organizers. Bachmann's Iowa co-chair Brad Zaun said her campaign has identified supporters in each county and used the straw poll as "somewhat of a dress rehearsal."
Craig Robinson, editor of theiowarepublican.com said Bachmann has a "leg up" in organizing but seems to have a long way to go to cover the entire state.
Steve Deace, a Des Moines radio host, holds a biblical worldview and a belief that Bachmann's best hope is to take the fight to Perry or Romney. He was pleased with her aggressive stance in challenging Perry. It wasn't until last week's debate, he said, "that I have seen the woman who struck me in private as a potential evangelical American version of Margaret Thatcher."
Deace is an influential voice among Christian conservatives whose radio persona has been likened to a blowtorch. He sees Obama as beatable by "just about any Republican without a cleft palate or a criminal record" and views Romney as a liberal in Reaganesque clothing. He wants a nominee who champions "limited government undergirded by Judeo-Christian ethics.'' Bachmann could be that person, he believes, and still has time and space, but she has to take on the Big Two to do so.
'Just get here'
"She needs to flash the depth of her worldview, and apply it specifically on the issues, and show, hey, I am your champion,'' he said. "When she doesn't do that, when she doesn't go after Romney for Romney-care, she hurts herself.''
Deace said the time is right for an edgy conservative, but admitted Bachmann faces the challenge of showing she is up to the job. "Her threshold might be one of the toughest -- she has to prove she can run the country,'' Deace said.
State Sen. David Johnson, a Perry backer from Ocheyedan in northwest Iowa, said the rush to Perry stems from his accomplishments as a governor. "Americans like governors,'' Johnson said.
But Zaun, a state senator from the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, said Bachmann's head start will pay off once she begins regularly engaging Iowans one-one-one.
"I told Michele, just get here -- we want you here,'' he said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042