ROCKWELL CITY, Iowa — It’s midafternoon on a clear but blustery Saturday and Rep. Michele Bachmann is in the middle of what could be the busiest campaign swing in Iowa caucus history, and she’s signing a man’s bald head with a black marker.
“This is funny,” she says, assuring everyone that it’s her first time doing this. “I can write ‘War and Peace’ up here.”
The man is one of just 11 who have visited the Pizza Ranch in Rockwell City to hear the Minnesota Republican plead for support as the Jan. 3 caucuses near. Four of the 11 aren’t even from here. The couple and their two children are from South Carolina and are visiting the mother’s parents who live nearby.
Still, all 11 get face time with Mrs. Bachmann, who wishes each a merry Christmas and signs away - mostly her campaign signs or brochures - and then begins to lay out why she is not only conservative but also qualified to challenge a sitting president.
“I wrote the bill to kill [financial regulation law] Dodd-Frank. I wrote the bill to kill Obamacare,” she says. “I sit on the intelligence committee. I get the same briefing the president gets.”
But just four minutes into her remarks, her aide tells her to wrap it up. The candidate adds a quick line or two, gets another nudge from the aide and ends it. She is running late, and her schedule for the day is barely half finished.
Mrs. Bachmann scrambles onto her bus, which plays a continuous loop of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” on its external loudspeaker, and she’s off, heading west into a milky orange sunset past the marquee sign at Dangie’s Diner in town that advertises “Welcome Rick Santorum - Thurs. 7-8:30.”
All told, Mrs. Bachmann made 13 stops Saturday, part of a marathon quest to touch all 99 of Iowa’s counties over the final three weeks of the campaign - and she still plans to carve out two days to go back home to Minnesota for Christmas Eve and Christmas.
“I’ve never known anybody, any candidate, to do that many stops in a day,” said Chuck Offenburger, a newsman who for years wrote the Iowa Boy column for the Des Moines Register, and who attended Mrs. Bachmann’s final event of the day in Jefferson, 13 hours and 300 miles after she began.
The Iowa-born Mrs. Bachmann, who now represents a Minnesota district in Congress, saw crowds big and small. At Abundant Life Ministries church in Jefferson, she spoke to about 50 adults - five times the size of the group in Rockwell City.
For now, she and the other lower-tier candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, have the state to themselves.
But the two men are taking a more leisurely pace, and at times Mrs. Bachmann seems to be running rings around them.
Together, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Perry had a total of eight events Saturday, and everywhere they were, it seemed, Mrs. Bachmann already had been that day or would be there soon.
At Cronk’s Cafe in Denison, Mrs. Bachmann packed the backroom with 30 people for her nighttime event - outpacing Mr. Santorum, who locals said had a decent showing but not as big.
The two are fighting over the same voters. One letter carrier and self-described social-issues conservative, Nyle Gruhn, ended the day with his mind pretty well made up, thanks to Mrs. Bachmann’s statement of pro-life beliefs at a forum earlier in the week hosted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
Mr. Gruhn said he was listening while making the mail rounds and found himself crying at her defense of life. He said he had to pull over on the road shoulder for a bit to compose himself.
“She’s my choice,” he said. “She’s the most conservative.”
One man at Cronk’s asked Mrs. Bachmann how she would make good on her promise to deport illegal immigrants. She said she’ll ask schools and social service agencies to check legal status before allowing entry.
“You have to demand citizenship from people to be in the system,” she said.
Later in the night, one woman who said she had been incarcerated in 2007 asked Mrs. Bachmann whether she would reinstitute parole for federal inmates who are trying to get back on track. Comforting the woman, Mrs. Bachmann said parole is about mercy and talked about how penitentiaries originated from the prison reform movement of the late 1700s.
Earlier, a man asked what her thoughts are on a state wanting to secede. She said she hadn’t heard that this was an issue, but he pressed, asking her to rule on the hypothetical.
“I hope they don’t. I want to keep all 50 states,” she replied.
The man walked out immediately.
Having already touched all the counties in the state, Mr. Santorum has started paying return visits. At a stop in Holstein on Thursday, he said he had been to Ida County three times, then halted midsentence and debated aloud whether he should count it as his fourth time.
By Christmas, he said, he will have held 350 town-hall meetings in the state.
Mr. Santorum always figured his campaign rested on Iowa, where Mr. Huckabee four years ago blazed the trail for a low-cost, pro-life, social-conservative campaign.
Mr. Perry, though, has had to switch strategies and make Iowa an all-or-nothing state, after his lead in the national polls and in Iowa evaporated in the fall.
With a bus of his own, his state security detail and a trailing bus of reporters, Mr. Perry began his Saturday at 11 a.m., delivering his standard stump speech for about 20 minutes, then taking four questions, posing for pictures and heading out. He spent about an hour on location.
Mrs. Bachmann already had been through Spencer, where she began her day two hours earlier than Mr. Perry with a 9 a.m. meet-and-greet at a Hy-Vee store. By 1 p.m., when Mr. Perry arrived at a restaurant on the outskirts of Algona for his second event of the day, Mrs. Bachmann was on stop No. 5, just up the street at a chocolate shop.
The RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls shows Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry each with about 10 percent support and Mr. Santorum with about 7 percent.
Unlike Mr. Perry, whose stump speech rarely varies dramatically, Mrs. Bachmann never has the same set of remarks.
She’ll almost always touch on immigration - she promises to make English the official language and end automatic birthright citizenship for all children born on U.S. soil - and vows to cut spending and repeal the health care and financial regulation laws, saying she has gone toe-to-toe with President Obama on all those issues.
She sometimes emphasizes security more in her remarks, while other times she talks about building the Keystone XL pipeline or reeling back executive overreach.
“There will be no czars in the Bachmann White House,” she said at Millers Landing, a restaurant in Humboldt, “and you also need to know there probably won’t be any teleprompters.”
Mr. Offenburger said sprints such as the one Mrs. Bachmann is doing can be great for meeting a lot of people, but only if the candidate doesn’t skimp on time with voters who in some cases have waited for a half-hour or more.
If that’s the case, voters might think the candidate is cutting corners with them - a political sin in Iowa, where many believe they must meet the candidates several times before making up their minds.
Evaluating Mrs. Bachmann’s full half-hour speech and question session, followed by autographs and photos, Mr. Offenburger said she met the bar that voters expect: “This was a fair stop here.”
Bowling for votes
By 8 p.m., after making up time, Mrs. Bachmann again had fallen behind schedule. Her bus raced across U.S. Route 30 toward a bowling alley in Carroll.
Nearly 100 miles southeast, the Des Moines Register was preparing to shake up the campaign by releasing its endorsement online before it appeared in Sunday’s print editions. The winner was Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has come under fire from Mrs. Bachmann, who says he doesn’t have strong enough pro-life values or the credentials of fighting against the federal health insurance law.
The Register said Mr. Romney would bring a thoughtful approach that wouldn’t include rejecting all Democratic ideas out of hand. The editorial didn’t mention Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Perry or Mr. Santorum, though it does have criticism for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, who round out the field competing here.
But accompanying the editorial were snapshot paragraphs of each candidate’s appearance before the editorial board, and the Register said Mrs. Bachmann was an “impressive fireball who can absorb and regurgitate tons of information, even if some of it turns out to be inaccurate.”
At the bowling alley, Mrs. Bachmann somehow had lost 30 minutes on her schedule. As she played foosball, her spokeswoman offered to email a reporter the campaign’s statement about the endorsement.
“I respect the decision of the Des Moines Register editorial board, but I disagree with their rationale and analysis of my campaign,” Mrs. Bachmann said in the statement.
At the alley, Mrs. Bachmann turned down one man’s offer to let her bowl a frame or two, apparently remembering candidate Barack Obama’s embarrassing gutter-ball performance in Pennsylvania in 2008.
“I’ll tell you, I’m terrible,” she said as she demurred.
Instead, she settled into the game of foosball, teaming up with a local boy and going head-to-head with his sister and Mrs. Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, who is usually a presence at her side.
But in this case, he was not with her - he was against her, playfully taunting her as they spun the levers. Mr. Bachmann won, though not before Mrs. Bachmann fired in the last goal.