Bachmann looks to Florida for strength

Upstaged by Romney and Perry in the most recent debate, she needs new backers, funds.

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Michele Bachmann

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LOS ANGELES - After being overshadowed throughout Wednesday's presidential debate, Michele Bachmann is more determined than ever to prove her staying power, campaign staffers say.

Now the fight moves to Florida, where the Tea Party Express will co-host with CNN a Monday night debate and give Bachmann a new opportunity to take on the now dominant figures in the race -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

And even though the election is 14 months away, time is growing short.

"I get the sense that major donors are going to start locking in soon," said Jack St. Martin, a Nevada-based conservative Republican strategist.

Bachmann rode to the national stage partly on the strength of an army of small donors, but to wage a top-tier presidential race, she'll need big money.

That may be a challenge if she turns in a less than stellar performance in Florida this month. In addition to the Tea Party debate, Florida will be the setting for a second debate, sponsored by the influential Conservative Political Action Committee, which will also conduct a straw poll that Bachmann is skipping.

Bachmann spokesman Alice Stewart said that Bachmann's national leadership team is working hard to secure donors.

To do that, expect Bachmann to step up her interactions with voters on the campaign trail to generate passion, buzz -- and cash.

"She is the finest retail politician in this race," Stewart said.

That talent is what got her an Iowa straw poll victory last month and has worked in other places she's spent time, voters have said.

Tom Tillison, co-founder of the Central Florida Tea Party Council, said that when he saw Bachmann speak in Florida last month, he came away saying: "That Michele Bachmann could win this election."

Stewart said Bachmann will hammer on in-person politics in the early voting states, keep up the conservative messaging and build a base from her long-standing conservative credentials.

"She's not out there to attack anyone else," Stewart said.

Immediately after the California debate, Bachmann returned to Washington to attend and react to President Obama's Thursday jobs speech, canceling Golden State events in the process. She scheduled a news conference immediately following Obama's speech.

"For her campaign, tonight's speech is an opportunity," said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

But Bachmann's congressional platform comes with a potential downside.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Bachmann has to overcome the fact that Floridians, like many Americans, are down on Congress even more than they are critical of the president.

"Congress isn't the best launch pad, which is one of her problems," MacManus said.

But Tillison notes that Perry has challenges, too.

"It's inaccurate to say at this point that Perry is a Tea Party candidate, but Michele Bachmann is without a doubt a Tea Party candidate," said Tillison, who acknowledges that he's still hoping Sarah Palin will enter the race.

Justin Sayfie, who served as a senior policy adviser for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and was a Tim Pawlenty supporter, said he is skeptical of those who say Bachmann is no longer a first-tier candidate. She remains the "odds-on favorite" to win the Iowa caucus next year, he said. "I don't think she needs to change anything," Sayfie said.

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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