Michele who? Observers of the Presidential primary in the last couple of weeks might be forgiven for forgetting who Michele Bachmann is with the whirlwind entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Despite Bachmann winning the Ames Straw Poll, Perry has sucked up all the oxygen in the room and effectively replaced Bachmann as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney in only the span of a couple weeks. Now Bachmann is planning to punch back in tonight's Florida debate, reasserting herself as the conservative's conservative, without the blemishes on her record that either Perry or Romney have.
Advisors to Bachmann are reportedly furious over her lack of questions at the last debate at the Reagan Presidential library. They intend on making sure she is a part of the conversation tonight in Florida, in part by adapting the strategy used effectively by Ron Paul at the previous debate — landing blows on now frontrunner Rick Perry.
Her team has given hints already as to how they plan on drawing the Bachmann/Perry contrast. First and foremost Bachmann plans on painting herself as the consistent conservative, who opposed healthcare mandates in any form. Romney obviously has Romneycare, but Perry has to worry about his HPV vaccine mandate — any healthcare mandate is anathema to conservatives at this point.
Bachmann has also stepped up her attacks on Perry's immigration record. As Newsmax reports, a Super PAC supporting her, Keep Conservatives United, has been running ads in South Carolina hitting Perry for opposing E-Verify, the system for employers to verify the citizenship of workers.
Perry's immigration record is a double edged sword. While it goes against the conservative grain in some areas, like supporting in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, it also could be a significant general election advantage, with rapidly growing Hispanic populations in a number of essential swing states, like Colorado. That, it turn, could be a primary advantage, in that it allows Perry to sell himself as someone able to win over key constituencies in the general. As Hispanics have soured on President Obama, they remain an essential swing constituency for the general.
Bachmann is hoping Perry's conservative apostasies on immigration will do more harm than good. Romney has also tried to hit Perry on immigration, but he doesn't have the gravitas with extremely conservative voters in the way Bachmann does, which should make Bachmann's swings at Perry on immigration interesting to watch. If she is able to take some of his sheen off with conservative voters it could have a major effect on the race in Iowa and South Carolina.
The most interesting swing Bachmann is likely to take at Perry tonight is over Social Security. Perry has taken a strong stand on Social Security, calling it a Ponzi scheme that should never have been around in the first place. Though Perry has received glowing praise from conservative commentators from Rush Limbaugh to Laura Ingraham for his stance, other campaigns smell blood in the water over the issue.
Bachmann advisors have been telegraphing that strategy off the record to the press:
A Bachmann adviser told The Examiner: "Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America. Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does. She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it's an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives."
Perry’s view is “clearly not something that's going to sit well with the people of Florida and Iowa and South Carolina and many of the early states, where there is a large population of seniors who rely heavily on Social Security.” the adviser said. “For [Perry] to scare them is wrong."
While the Romney camp has made Perry's social security comments the basis of their case against a Perry nomination since the debate, the surprising news is that the Bachmann camp has been signaling a similar attack on Perry.
Both Bachmann and Perry's team are betting that senior voters won't respond well to the Ponzi scheme messaging, seeking instead a candidate who can criticize the system while at the same time providing solutions to fix the broken program. For Romney it's about proving Perry will have too many problems in the general to nominate him, while for Bachmann it's less clear.
The voters that Bachmann and Perry are fighting over tend to lean extremely conservative and are more likely to respond to forceful assaults on government entitlements, but Bachmann's hope is they view Social Security different than Medicaid. Seniors have paid into Social Security their entire lives, with many depending on the funds it provides them now, leading them to view it differently than Medicaid, a program much more disconnected from their daily lives.
Tonight's debate will a key opportunity for Bachmann to re-enter the top tier and reassert herself as the conservative's conservative, an image that catapulted her atop the Ames Straw Poll. For Perry, it will be an opportunity to see how he deals with being a "pinata", in his words, and what attacks work against him and what don't.
One thing is for sure — tonight will be either proof that Perry is the new frontrunner, or Bachmann will prove the top tier is not limited to only two Governors.