A Tale of Two Candidates: Bachmann, Pawlenty Duke It Out for Iowa

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe ( @ matthewbjaffe ) reports from Iowa:

The morning sun was beating down mercilessly. Temperatures were soaring into the 90s. The summer’s worst heat wave had arrived. But in a backyard in Norwalk, Iowa, a crowd patiently waited, minute after sweltering minute, for the featured guest to arrive.

Rep. Michele Bachmann was late. A half hour late, to be exact. But no one seemed to mind. In the eyes of her supporters, Bachmann can seemingly do no wrong. She has surged up the polls in recent months and now, with only two weeks left before the Ames straw poll (Aug. 13), the Minnesota Republican was in Norwalk Wednesday to rally Hawkeye State voters in a bid to keep her momentum going.

“I need your help. I need everybody’s help for the straw poll, so please bring all your friends. Organize, we’ll work with you, we’ll get buses, we’re going to dance, we’re going to sing, we’re going to eat, we’re going to have a great time at the straw poll, so come out. We’ll change the country, we’ll take the country back in 2012, because I firmly believe that Barack Obama will be a … one … term … president,” she said, the crowd of about 75 people saying the last three words along with her.

Just down the road in Indianola, the scene at rival Tim Pawlenty’s event could not have been more different. For starters, it was indoors. In a backroom of an empty sports bar on a weekday morning, Pawlenty, the former two-term governor of Minnesota, addressed a group of around 35 people. While Bachmann used a whiteboard to hammer home her points about the nation’s soaring deficits, Pawlenty had no props. In Norwalk, Bachmann’s aides took down voters’ information on iPads. In Indianola, Pawlenty’s staff handed out cards for potential supporters to commit to making the trek to Ames on behalf of their candidate. If Bachmann wanted to tap into the passion of the audience, Pawlenty tried to appeal to their common sense.

“Iowa’s got this deserved wonderful position of being first, but I also think you want to be right,” he warned. “You want to pick somebody and launch somebody out of here who’s not just good for Iowa in that moment, but you want to make sure that person can actually be the nominee of our party, can actually beat Barack Obama, and can actually lead and function and serve as president of the United States under the most challenging circumstances in the modern history of the country and get good results.”

Pawlenty’s use of the word “function” had added meaning that morning. After Bachmann admitted that she suffers from migraine headaches, reporters were bombarding her with questions about whether her medical issues could hinder her ability to serve as president. Pawlenty, perhaps sensing an opening to attack his top rival in Iowa, did not let it go to waste.

“If you’re going to be president of the United States, you’ve got to be able to do the job every day, all the time,” he told reporters. “There’s no real time off in that job.”

Bachmann later tried to put the issue to rest by releasing a note from her doctor in Congress, who stated that Bachmann’s migraines “occur infrequently and have known trigger factors of which [she is] aware and [knows] how to avoid.”

Some of Bachmann’s supporters seemed none too worried about her medical background.

Chad Workman of Norwalk told ABC News that “as long as you can get to a place where you can manage it, it’s fine.” Sitting alongside him at Bachmann’s backyard event, John Wissink chimed in, “People are talking about headaches? I think Obama’s a headache.”

If Pawlenty is going to stop Bachmann’s surge, it might take more than just reports about her migraines. Despite running a fine-tuned campaign thus far, complete with detailed policy speeches and numerous television ads in Iowa, he has languished in the polls. In the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents put Pawlenty ninth, with only 2 percent support. Bachmann, by comparison, was third with 12 percent support, but ahead of her was Sarah Palin, who might not even run, and GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, in first with 26 percent support.

But Romney is not logging hours in Iowa, making Ames all the more important for Bachmann and Pawlenty. On Wednesday, both Minnesotans released new TV ads. In an indication of the different levels of interest that the two candidates are generating, as of Thursday afternoon, Bachmann’s ad had more than 19,000 views on YouTube, Pawlenty’s less than 3,000.

Now Pawlenty is making an all-out push for Ames. From denouncing Bachmann’s record in Congress as “non-existent” to embarking on a two-week RV tour of Iowa, it is now or never for Pawlenty. On the plus side for him, the mechanics of the straw poll might play to his strengths, namely a seasoned campaign team of political veterans and a well-established set-up in Iowa. Convincing Iowans to trek hours across the state on a Saturday in the summer to vote in the straw poll takes a great deal of organization, something that Pawlenty appears to have.

“Pawlenty has a huge organizational advantage, but he’s coming off a rough month,” one top Republican operative in Iowa told ABC News. “Bachmann has a huge passion advantage, but she lacks organization. The difference is that only Bachmann can fix her disadvantage, she can improve her organization in the coming weeks.”

Ames, however, is not just about organization and passion. It’s also about expectations. While Bachmann’s are higher than ever, Pawlenty has sought to downplay his expectations, saying only that he hopes to “show good progress.” When you consider where he is coming from, that is not saying much. After his event in Indianola, Pawlenty even cited his dismal showing in the Des Moines Register poll in late June – when he finished in sixth place – as a benchmark to measure progress in Ames.

“I think they had us in sixth or seventh place,” he told reporters, “so we want to move in the Ames straw poll from the back of the pack to something closer to the front of the pack and show good progress – and I’m confident we will.”

“There’s been so many times in my career where people have said, you know, ‘He has no chance.’ You know, the experts have said, 'He’s, you know, second or third tier' and we’ve always been able to fight back and win and we’re going to do that again,” he predicted. “I’m very confident that we’re going to show great progress in Ames.”

A second Republican operative said Ames might in fact be shaping up better for Pawlenty than it is for Bachmann.

“The challenge for Bachmann is she’s red-hot in July, but you need to be red-hot in August,” the source said. “She not only has to beat Pawlenty, but there’s got to be some kind of margin of victory for her. If Pawlenty can deliver on his much-ballyhooed organization and get people to the straw poll, I certainly think that would change all these obituaries about his campaign.”

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