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.
Several other attendees seemed to leave similarly disappointed.
“I was really a big fan of hers up until how I saw her come into this event,” Judd Saul, a local Tea Party activist, told the Texas Tribune. “Her coming in, not eating dinner with us, showing up with a grand entrance with a big song playing … it’s not what it’s about here.”
Bachmann continued to assert her authenticity at carefully staged press availability after the event, in which she took the unusual step of calling on pre-selected reporters, whose names she read from an index card in her hand. (Perhaps the last presidential campaign event at which questioners were selected in advance was candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 trip to Europe and the Middle East.)
“Well this is kind of what we do when we go to an event,” said the Minnesotan in response to a question about whether she overshadowed the county party’s dinner with her high-decibel Elvis music and rock-star routine on stage. “We always afterward, I sign things and try to meet as many people as we can,” she said. “That’s what this is about, being able to meet people and talk to people, touch people — that’s what we tried to do tonight.”
In fact, Bachmann never went table to table to greet the roughly 300 local Republicans who came to see her, and seemed to go out of her way to avoid being drawn into the crowd. She also didn’t acknowledge Perry, who sat smiling and occasionally applauding through her speech.
Perry, by contrast, didn’t have to explain to anyone that he knows to campaign in Iowa.
Making his debut in the first-in-the-nation state, the Texan parried questions from reporters in between chatting with attendees about topics ranging from Iowa farms to just how much Austin has grown in recent years.
Activists came away impressed both with his stump speech – which, unlike that of Bachmann, was followed by a question-and-answer session with the crowd – and his warmth.
“We met [George W.] Bush, he’s a lot like that,” said Nancy Mashuda-Pohnl of Iowa City, who came wearing a Bachmann T-shirt and indicated she liked all three speakers.
Erv Dennis of Cedar Falls said he came away “convinced that Governor Perry is the right person.”
As for Bachmann, Dennis said: “I think she’s a very fine person, she’s very sincere. But I don’t believe that she has the experience, the depth, the strength we need for this country.”
And Danny Learer, a self-described Evangelical who said he drove 75 miles from Wright County, praised Perry’s “honesty.”
“He’s got a plan,” Learer said. Bachmann “does a lot of talking, but I don’t hear no plan.”
Perry also showed none of Bachmann’s skittishness about the unplanned encounters on the trail.
Perry’s Texas rangers were far more relaxed about allowing reporters and supporters near the candidate than was Bachmann’s private detail. Bachmann’s press secretary, Alice Stewart, ignored a question about the reason for her protective cocoon.
But former congressional candidate Brad Zaun, who is one of her Iowa co-chairs, suggested the reason was because of fears for her physical security. Although the higher-profile Sarah Palin had wandered the State Fair Friday unguarded and unhurt, Zaun said Bachmann needed the protection.
“It was just a mob and a security risk,” he said of the fair.
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