Top-level staff departures from Michele Bachmann’s campaign are raising fresh questions about her durability heading into the post-Labor Day stretch of the 2012 presidential primary contest.
As POLITICO first reported Sunday, her campaign manager Ed Rollins will be moving from day-to-day campaign managing to a senior advisory role. His deputy, David Polyansky, is leaving the campaign.
Both played a critical role in vaulting Bachmann to a first place finish at the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa on Aug. 13, an event that served as the first critical test of organization in the first-caucus state and one where she eked out a victory over Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But since then the Minnesota congresswoman has seen Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, vault ahead of her in recent national polls.
Rollins, in an interview, cited his health as the driving factor behind the change.
“I wish I was 40 years old, but I’m not,” he told POLITICO. “I’m 68 years old, I had a stroke a year and a half ago. I’m worn out.”
He said the rigors of the daily campaign grind were simply getting to him, and that he fully supported Bachmann still. He said he would be traveling with her to California for the first fall debate, which is being hosted Wednesday at the Reagan Presidential Library by POLITICO and NBC News.
“I want nothing but the best for her, she’s a great candidate, I’ll continue to be there for her,” he said of Bachmann, adding that he believed she has strength in Iowa still and that the debate will be an important moment for the various candidates.
Bachmann said in a statement: “In less than 50 days and with fewer resources than other campaigns, Ed was the architect that led our campaign to a historic victory in Iowa. I am grateful for his guidance and leadership, and fortunate to retain his valuable advice even though his health no longer permits him to oversee the day-to-day operations of the campaign.”
Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart, who worked with Rollins on the Mike Huckabee campaign in 2007, said the move wasn’t unexpected and that there was no campaign shake-up, “The plan all along has been to restructure things after the straw poll. Ed has been — and will always be — a valuable part of the campaign. Given his health, now is the perfect time for Ed to move out of the strenuous day to day activities and into a senior advisor role. After a tremendous Straw Poll victory, we look forward to building the team as we move closer to the caucuses and primaries.”
However, Polyansky — who along with Rollins also played a critical role in Huckabee’s presidential campaign — will not be remaining.
“I wish Michele nothing but the best, and anyone who underestimates her as a candidate does so at their own peril,” Polyansky told POLITICO.
A GOP source familiar with the situation said that Polyansky had “strategic differences on the path forward” with the candidate, who has struggled to gain traction in the last few weeks.
It wasn’t immediately clear who would be taking over the top slots in the Bachmann campaign, as she tries to find her footing in a race that is rapidly reconfiguring into a two-man contest between Perry and flagging frontrunner Mitt Romney - a fact that Rollins himself noted in an interview with the Washington Post early Monday.
Bachmann advance man Keith Nahigian is now being moved into the campaign manager’s slot.
“Keith has played a vital role in the success we have had to date and I’m confident he can lead us to a strong finish in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and across the country,” Bachmann said in her statement.
Rollins convened the team that brought Bachmann to the top-tier at Ames, hiring a string of campaign hands from past races, among them Polyansky, Stewart and veteran pollster Ed Goeas.
Winning Ames had been the immediate goal, and the team worked hard in a few short months to build a ground game against an established and familiar opponent in Iowa, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
It was not immediately clear whether Rollins’ move and Polyansky’s leave-taking will be the end of the changes; two Republican sources familiar with the situation said other departures are possible in the coming weeks.
But Bachmann, who Pawlenty had predicted both in private and on the campaign trail would burn hot before burning out, has been unable to capitalize on the Ames win. Rollins said in interviews Monday that Perry’s entry to the race - the same day as the straw poll - had stalled any momentum she could have gotten from her victory among the more than 16,000 Iowa activists.
Yet Perry is in her path everywhere she turns - polls nationally and in the early states have him as the newly-minted frontrunner, well ahead of both Bachmann and Romney.
Bachmann’s only path, veteran operatives believe, is an Iowa win, which she could use as a springboard into South Carolina contention. Both states are heavy on evangelical voters, tea party activists and Christian conservatives who make up her base.
But they also make up Perry’s base — and he is quickly bringing them to his side.
Perry has another advantage in a critical area that Bachmann, by all accounts in fundraising circles, has struggled with — appeal to a large swath of major donors and bundlers. The congresswoman has low-dollar fundraising prowess among the Tea Party set and her staunch supporters, but showing the discipline and drive necessary to appeal to major givers has been an uphill climb, several fundraising sources said.
Bachmann has also struggled to be treated as a viable contender among a GOP presidential field of governors and former governors, who tout their experiences as chief executives and, in some cases, suggest her legislative experience doesn’t quite cut it.
As much as Perry needs to survive Wednesday’s debate on solid footing to reassure establishment figures that he can go the distance, Bachmann also needs a breakout performance to keep the “two-man race” narrative from hardening.
At a minimum, the departures - regardless of the reasons - are a fresh reminder of the staff turnover that has plagued her office as a congresswoman.
In her first two terms in Congress, Bachmann’s office burned through four chiefs of staff and five press secretaries. An additional chief of staff, who was never listed in public accountings or records, was hired but departed in a matter of days.
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