Rick Perry v. Michele Bachmann: Is It Even Really A Contest?

Rick Perry will need to get past Michele Bachmann before he takes on Mitt Romney. But, really, how hard could it be?

With the race for the Republican nomination now essentially a three-way race between Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, the attention is now focusing on the inevitable contest between Perry and Bachmann for the support of Tea Party, social conservative, and evangelical voters, much of which will be played out of the next four months in the Hawkeye State. Last night, we got something of a preview of that battle as both Perry and Bachmann spoke before a Blackhawk County Republican dinner in Waterloo, which just happens to be the town Michele Bachmann was born in:

WATERLOO, Iowa — Rick Perry came to Michele Bachmann’s home town Sunday evening and schooled the newly minted Iowa front-runner in her native state’s demanding retail political culture.

The day after Perry announced his candidacy and Bachmann won the Ames straw poll, the two candidates spoke to the Black Hawk County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner, the sort of endless regional event that is a staple of the long Iowa campaign.

Both candidates offered conservative standards, promising to slash government spending and ease regulations to jump-start the private sector economy. Perry promised to use his presidential veto pen “until all ink runs out to get the message across that we’re not spending all the money.” Bachmann pledged to keep faith with evangelical Republicans.

The duo also went to great lengths to burnish their local credentials, with Bachmann celebrating her Waterloo roots repeatedly and Perry name-checking Iowa companies, recalling his own 4-H gold star status and Eagle Scout upbringing, and paying repeated respect to senior Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who maintains a hog farm nearby and was seated in the crowd.

But the contrast that may lift Perry, and undermine Bachmann, in their high-stakes battle for Iowa had less to do with what they said than how they said it — and what they did before and after speaking.

Perry arrived early, as did former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The Texas governor let a media throng grow and dissolve before working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely to a windy Abraham Lincoln impersonator, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible.

But Bachmann campaigned like a celebrity. And the event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners.

She camped out in her bus, parked on the street in front of a nearby Ramada Hotel, until it was time to take the stage. Even after a local official’s introduction, Bachmann was nowhere to be found. It was not until a second staffer assured her that the lighting had been changed and a second introduction piped over the loudspeakers that she entered the former dance hall here. By the time she made her big entrance to bright lights and blaring music, the crowd seemed puzzled.

Bachmann’s stump speech drew mostly polite applause until she closed by giving a large apple pie to “the oldest mother in the room” – a local centenarian.

Then she stayed on stage, signing T-shirts from above, which her staff then distributed to a steady but not overwhelming crowd.

Finally, she swept through what was by then an empty ballroom behind a phalanx of six aides who shielded her from reporters and the handful of Iowans who remained.

“She kept us waiting, she was not here mixing – then she was talking about what great evening it was. How do you know? You just got here,” said Karen Vanderkrol, of Hudson, Iowa, who said she agreed with the substance of Bachmann’s speech, but that one line in particular had rung false: “I am a real person.”

“She can say she’s real and part of the people, but that’s not what we do,” Vanderkrol said of the congresswoman’s behavior.

On some level, it’s not surprising that Perry would be better at retail “grip and grin” politics than Bachmann. After all, he’s been working at it ever since he was first elected to the Texas Legislature in 1984, Additionally, this detached attitude that the report notes about Bachmann isn’t new; I noticed the same thing during the two brief occasions I was near Bachmann at CPAC in February, a phalanx of aides, most of them pretty young, who whisked her from one event to the other and minimized interaction with the crowds. Nonetheless, it was somewhat surprising to hear, from press reports and Twitter reports from people who were at the venue last night, that Perry was coming across better with a crowd in Bachmann’s hometown.

Ed Morrissey noticed the difference between the Bachmann and Perry performances as well:

Perry made a good start with a friendly crowd.  He used a mobile, dynamic style and emphasized the commonalities between the agricultural states of Texas and Iowa.  Perry spoke of the difficult farming life and his formative years in small-town Texas, as well as spending a surprising amount of time talking about his military experience.  At one point, he got a rousing cheer from the crowd when he pledged to make the presidency regain the respect of men and women in uniform. Perry also talked about jobs, and how his record shows that he can fix what’s ailing the nation.  The crowd reacted with enthusiasm, interrupting Perry a number of times with applause and cheers.

If Iowans were angry about his decision to skip Ames, it didn’t manifest itself here.  Perry got plenty of enthusiasm from the crowd.

In contrast, Bachmann’s reception seemed less enthusiastic.  The lighting had to be changed before Bachmann spoke, apparently at the campaign’s insistence, which delayed her entrance and interfered with the timing of her entrance announcement.  But more puzzlingly, Bachmann didn’t arrive to mix with the crowd before the event started, waiting until she was scheduled to speak to enter the Electric Ballroom.  Perry arrived early and greeted every table, the kind of retail politics that Iowa usually rewards — and that Iowans expect.  Whether the attendees were off-put by the snub or not, Bachmann received less enthusiastic response than Perry did for his speech. I should note that Bachmann actually gave a better delivery of what was essentially the same speech she did in Ames, with much better use of dynamics and projection that fit the more intimate environment.

Of course, one appearance in Waterloo, Iowa does not a campaign make, and there’s much to do over the next four months that will decide how this battle turns out. Moreover, Perry has his own vulnerabilities, as I pointed out yesterday. Nonetheless, just looking at these two candidates on paper there really doesn’t seem to be any comparison. Perry has served in Executive positions (Agriculture Commissioner, Lt. Governor, Governor) for twenty years. Bachmann has been a Congresswoman from a central Minnesota Congressional District since 2006, and before that served in the Minnesota State Senate for six years. During her time in Congress, she has no significant legislative accomplishments to put on her resume, and has essentially earned her reputation and a backbench bomb thrower. If you’re a voter in Iowa looking for a conservative who is actually qualified to sit in the Oval Office, the choice is rather obvious I think.

Of course, many of Michele Bachmann’s most ardent supporters already know all of this, and don’t really care. Will they be persuaded to jump ship and support Perry? Only time will tell, of course, but if last night’s event in Waterloo is any indication, Michele Bachmann’s star may be about to fade.

Photo via Poltico

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. The Heretik says:

    How hard could it be? I am pretty sure that it is what Tim Pawlenty said.

  2. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    That this conversation even is necessary speaks volumes about the extent to which various segments of the body politic have descended into terminal stupidity.

  3. James in LA says:

    Byron York’s question was the tip of the iceberg. My conservative friends invite this line of questioning as they tip further to the right. When they come up in the general, the collective cringe of the American public will not be for Obama. Rep. Bachmann cannot escape it by trying to ignore it.

    I heard Perry’s speech live and it was waaaaaaay too much W waaaaaaay too soon. And I think this is why he will probably get the nod. The tea people’s “take my country back” meme speaks to grasping at failed nostalgia, and I doubt many of them will be going back to school to otherwise occupy them. They will pine for George W. Perry.

    Because back to school is the only pathway now, and do not get on it unless you intend to stay there for life.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    And Romney smiled. He will just sit back and let them destroy each other. The same can be said for the Republican power brokers.

  5. John G says:

    Perry once campaigned for Al Gore! Texas has a 25 billion dollar deficit. I live in TX. No to Rick Perry!