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WASHINGTON - As her presidential campaign enters a decisive phase this fall, Michele Bachmann is facing new questions about her propensity for gaffes and the recurring upheavals in the ranks of her staff and top advisers.
In interviews with the Star Tribune, six former Bachmann staffers said the sudden resignations recently of campaign manager Ed Rollins and deputy David Polyansky reflected her longstanding reluctance to trust the advice of top political handlers hired from outside of her family circle and could put her campaign in danger of foundering.
Since her victory in the Iowa straw poll last month, Bachmann also has seen her fortunes sink with the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a highly networked social conservative who appeals to many of the same evangelical activists she is courting.
Her campaign has downplayed her recent campaign shakeup as a normal "restructuring" in a fast-moving race. But hanging over Bachmann's reorganization is a history of staff turnover that includes five congressional chiefs of staff in as many years, as well as five press secretaries, four legislative directors and three communications directors.
The six former staffers who spoke to the Star Tribune praised their former boss as talented and demanding. But they also said that her reliance on her instincts and those of a tight-knit cadre of family advisers -- chiefly her husband, Marcus -- explains a history of turnover considered extraordinary even by Congress' revolving-door standards.
Those who have broken with her -- some of them respected GOP operatives who would speak only off the record -- say she demands utter loyalty and is wary of professional advisers.
"The Achilles heel of her campaign is that when things get really tough you need some seasoned professionals," said former Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Ron Carey, who served as Bachmann's chief of staff until a falling out last year. "Her history is not to rely on outsiders, even if they have a lot more experience and savvy."
Rollins, said to be stepping back for health reasons, and Polyansky, who quit with no explanation, have said little about the shakeup. But a GOP source close to the situation said both national strategists felt that their advice was too often ignored. "I don't know what happened with all those congressional staffers, but to let those experiences interfere with your ability to trust people like Ed Rollins is crippling," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the wake of what might be Bachmann's biggest campaign gaffe -- repeating an unfounded claim that HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation -- Rollins went on MSNBC last week to make it clear he was not consulted.
"Two weeks ago I made every decision," said Rollins, a venerated GOP strategist who remains on retainer in the reduced role as a senior adviser. "Today I make no decisions."
What most bothered her national strategists, the GOP source said, was that Bachmann's HPV gaffe squandered what had been a direct debate hit on Perry, who has close ties to vaccine-maker Merck & Co.
Instead, Bachmann put herself on the defensive just as she's trying to claw her way back into what has become a virtual two-person race between Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"It [the vaccine remark] took a positive exchange with Rick Perry and turned it into a really negative story for her," said the GOP source, who has been close to the campaign. "That's the challenge. She's just got to mature as a candidate and learn to trust people."
Rollins has publicly urged her to admit a "mistake," something she has declined to do.
Badge of courage?
Gaffes have been a constant staff worry for Bachmann. But the image of handler-defying authenticity may stand as a badge of courage to some.
"She's tough to work for," said north metro radio host Jack Tomczak, who was let go after working on the congressional and campaign sides of Bachmann's political organization. "On the positive side, she can be very demanding, and not everybody's up to the task. On the less flattering side, she can be erratic and irrational."
The best example, Tomczak said, was Bachmann's "House Call" Tea Party rally at the U.S. Capitol to protest President Obama's health care overhaul in 2009. The event was Bachmann's brainchild and drew thousands, despite the skepticism of congressional Republican leaders and some of her own staff. Afterward, Tomczak said, Bachmann wanted a follow-up event where protesters would surround the Capitol banging pots and pans. That idea was nixed.
"Both of those events sounded crazy," Tomczak said. "One of them was pulled off spectacularly, and the other one was crazy."
Becky Rogness, Bachmann's current congressional press secretary, said she never heard about the pots and pans plan. But she said there's a better explanation for the frequent staff turnover in the office.
"Working for Congresswoman Bachmann is a high-profile job in a fast-paced environment," she said. "It's not surprising staffers built sought-after experience here with Bachmann and have been enticed to take other notable positions."
One was Stephen Miller, a young Republican aide who has cycled through several congressional leadership offices since leaving Bachmann. He calls her a "tremendous boss" who "fostered a lively intellectual environment."
That view differs sharply from those of Carey and Tomczak, as well as four other former aides who spoke on condition of anonymity. Uniformly, and in separate interviews, they describe a politician who demands fealty and distrusts outsiders.
"She had a way of mistrusting those around her because she viewed them as mercenaries," said one former aide well-regarded in Minnesota GOP circles. "She looked at us as somebody who wanted a paycheck, so it wasn't about helping her. But you don't question that when it's your son or your husband."
Said another aide: "She wants 'yes' people around her. Loyalty is a really big thing."
Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton, who has closely watched the arc of Bachmann's political career, believes her staff departures simply reflect the rough-and-tumble of a high-profile organization in the midst of a heated political battle. "She's tough and she demands results," he said.
Now run by "interim" campaign manager Keith Nahigian -- once the advance man for former Vice President Dan Quayle -- Bachmann's campaign could struggle to regain the confidence it has lost since Rollins and Polyansky helped steer her to victory in the Ames Straw Poll.
Bachmann campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart downplayed Nahigian's interim status. "Our focus right now is on meeting the people of Iowa and the other early states, as well as performing well in the debates," she said.
"Any time there is turmoil within a staff, there's usually trouble within the campaign," said University of Iowa political scientist Cary Covington, an expert on presidential elections. "Staff don't usually leave because the candidate is doing poorly. Instead they leave because they feel the candidate is not listening to their advice or there are conflicts within the staff, resulting in one faction or the other leaving."
Fact-checking has been one of those friction points. It was Bachmann's ad-libbing on television that spun the HPV vaccine remark into a week's worth of bad press and criticism from fellow conservatives.
"That's her trademark," said one former top staffer. "She pushes the envelope. But when you're living on the edge, every once in a while you're going to cross it."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.