It was supposed to have been a big moment for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota -- headlining a Republican dinner in Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city, ahead of a potential presidential campaign announcement next month.
Then a late vote in Congress kept her in Washington last night and a political shadow appeared, as Sarah Palin announced a multiday East Coast campaign-style bus tour that will kick off with a May 29 appearance at a motorcycle rally for veterans in Washington.
Palin’s “One Nation Tour” is stirring speculation that she will enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination, in which she and Bachmann would compete for much the same constituency.
The U.S. is at a “critical turning point,” Palin, 47, said in a statement on her political action committee’s website, and her aim is to help Americans to “connect with our founders, our patriots, our challenges and victories to clearly see our way forward.”
“I think she is trying to make a preemptive strike to maybe convince Bachmann not to run,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.
The Iowa caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, kick off the 2012 presidential nominating contests. Bachmann, whom Palin helped to boost onto the national stage, stands to be especially hurt if the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee enters the race.
Palin’s star power would likely allow her to quickly mobilize a campaign in Iowa if she decides to run, Bystrom said “She almost has a shadow operation here,” she said.
Bystrom said that if both women were to run in Iowa, neither would win the caucuses because they would split the vote of Tea Party activists and social conservatives.
“The more it is split by potential candidates, it would probably mean that neither of them would win the caucuses,” she said.
The Republican field appears to be solidifying. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, real estate developer Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour have all announced in recent weeks that they wouldn’t enter the contest.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty formally entered the race May 23 with an announcement in Des Moines. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, visited Iowa today for the first time this year; his campaign said yesterday that he would announce his candidacy on June 2.
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, so his decision not to run provides an opening for those who can appeal to the social conservatives who were his most loyal supporters.
“That left a huge space in Iowa for someone to pick up where he left off,” Bystrom said.
In the 2008 Republican caucuses, 60 percent of participants described themselves in entrance polls as born-again or evangelical Christians.
‘Head of Steam’
Charlie Black, a lobbyist and Republican strategist who is neutral in the party’s race, said Bachmann “has gotten a real head of steam up and is generating a lot of support among the social conservative and evangelicals that Palin would need” to mount a successful presidential bid.
That may have played a role in persuading Palin to reassert herself on the public stage, with an eye toward preserving the option of launching a presidential bid, he said.
Bachmann, 55, belatedly made it to Iowa today and during an interview on “Iowa Press,” a statewide public television show that is a frequent stop for presidential candidates, she said she has been praying about the decision over her presidential announcement.
“Every decision that I make, I pray about,” she said. “Yes, I’ve had that calling and tugging on my heart that this is the right thing to do.”
After her television interview, Bachmann told reporters that she doesn’t believe Palin timed her announcement to overshadow her.
‘Wish Her Well’
“I didn’t take it that way at all,” she said. “I consider Governor Palin a friend and colleague. Whatever her plans are, I wish her well in her plans. The decision I’m making is completely independent and unique of any other candidate.”
Bachmann had been scheduled to appear in Des Moines before she was delayed by the House vote to extend expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act. She has said that she will make her presidential intentions known in June.
Via speakerphone, Bachmann told reporters in Iowa last night that she wasn’t concerned that her supporters overlap with those of Palin’s.
“Our decision is unique, and we are independent of what any other candidates decide,” she said. “I consider Governor Palin a friend and I have great respect for Governor Palin. But again, I don’t believe any two candidates are interchangeable.”
Should she get into the race, Bachmann said, she would make her formal announcement in Waterloo, Iowa, where she was born.
“Being born in Iowa gives every advantage, every advantage a girl would want to have,” she said. “There is no downside to being born in Iowa.”
Bachmann said she is preparing for the race. “We already have hired staff in South Carolina, in New Hampshire, in Iowa,” she said. “We have people on the ground.”
She later addressed the dinner audience in Des Moines on a video link that periodically cut in and out. Campaigning in the state is heating up 11 weeks before the Iowa Straw Poll, a carnival-like political event sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party and designed to test the organizational ability of presidential candidates.
Spotlighting her interest in Iowa, Bachmann placed an ad on the home page of the Des Moines Register’s website that encouraged Republicans to attend her speech. The ad said it was paid for by her congressional campaign fund.
Republican activists said they were eager to see Bachmann join the field, and think that she could be a strong contender.
“She does well with social conservatives and fiscal conservatives and she does well with the Tea Party people,” said Kevin McLaughlin, chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, Iowa’s largest. “She certainly will be a player.”
Nationally, in a Gallup poll released yesterday, Bachmann trails Romney, Palin and other official and prospective Republican candidates. Romney had 17 percent and Palin was second with 15 percent in the survey of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Bachmann received 5 percent.
Also ahead of her were Representative Ron Paul of Texas (10 percent) former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (9 percent), businessman and one-time talk radio host Herman Cain (8 percent) and Pawlenty (6 percent).
The poll was taken May 20-24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Bachmann said in an April 29 interview that her strategy would be to marry support from socially conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina with that of Tea Party backers in New Hampshire.
She has become an uncompromising spokeswoman for conservative positions on social and fiscal issues, prodding Republican leaders not to cooperate with President Barack Obama’s administration. Inflammatory comments she has made -- she suggested during the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama may have “anti-American views” and recently compared the national debt to the Holocaust -- have raised questions about her prospects as a presidential candidate.
Other potential candidates for the Republican nomination include former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who resigned his post as U.S. ambassador to China on April 30; former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned-Republican. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson has declared his candidacy.