ST. PAUL, Minn. — How quickly things change in politics.
Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was rising to the top of the field of Republican presidential candidates. The entrance of Gov. Rick Perry changed all that. Now he's leading her in several recent polls by substantial margins.
This early in the race polls change all time, and most show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Perry vying for the front-runner spot. What may be more troubling for the Bachmann camp is that Perry is doing well among the same socially conservative voters and self-identified members of the Tea Party that Bachmann's been wooing, analysts say.
So how similar are the two candidates?
On many policy issues, the Minnesotan and the Texan share common ground. But there's a lot of daylight between the two when it comes to experience and fundraising — qualities likely to make Perry Bachmann's most formidable opponent on the campaign trail.
Taxes and spending
When Bachmann told the nation she was running for president, she said that she wanted her candidacy to "stand for the moment when 'we the people' reclaimed our independence from a government that has gotten too big, spends too much and has taken away too much of our liberty."
Low taxes and low spending are central to Bachmann's pledge, and, for the most part, her voting record underscores that commitment. The conservative Club for Growth gives Bachmann high marks for consistently rejecting tax and spending increases in Minnesota and in Washington. However, the group points out that she voted in favor of a 75-cent fee on cigarettes while in the Minnesota Legislature and requested millions in earmarks while in Congress.
Like Bachmann, Perry positions himself as a staunch fiscal conservative who supports low taxes and spending. But it turns out his record on the subject is somewhat mixed.
It's true that state spending has fallen under his tenure. And generally, he's credited with keeping Texas' "low tax" reputation untarnished.
To highlight his tax record, Perry talks up a historic property tax cut in 2006. The change was necessary in light of a Supreme Court decision that deemed the state's school funding system unconstitutional. But to reduce tax rates without eroding school funding, Perry at the same time agreed to a tax on gross revenues of Texas companies. According to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the ultimate effect was a net tax cut, but businesses still ended up paying more.
Perry catches a lot of heat from conservatives for establishing economic development funds of government dollars to entice new business to the state. The Club for Growth calls those pots of money "a form of corporate welfare."
At least a few prominent Tea Party activists in Texas, including Ken Emanuelson of the Dallas Tea Party, aren't sold on Perry as the GOP nominee because he used government money to meddle in business.
"The common thread here is 'we can use the power of government to help business,'" Emanuelson said. "I don't believe in that. I'm a free-market kind of guy."
Another gripe is that Perry used these pots of money to curry favor with donors. In an investigation last year, The Dallas Morning News found that $16 million from a technology development fund had been given to some of Perry's supporters.
Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, says Perry's economic development efforts have created a lot of jobs; one development fund is responsible for at least 58,000 of them, she said. Indeed, while the rest of the nation was flailing, Texas was been expanding its workforce, though Perry's critics say the growth is partly the result of Texas being an oil-rich state.
Bachmann has made job creation central to her campaign. While she has supported legislation that she says would create jobs, such as a GOP bill to expand energy production in the U.S., her record is sparse on the subject. While in Congress, the House has passed only a handful of Bachmann's resolutions and amendments. And she's spent most of her congressional career as a junior member of the minority party, so she's had little opportunity to take the lead on viable legislation.
Nor has Bachmann detailed her jobs platform, only saying that she will cut taxes, eliminate the new health care law and scale back cumbersome government regulations to make it easier for businesses to hire.
Unlike Perry, who's stepped in to spur job creation, Bachmann hints she would take a different approach.
"It's time that the president admits that government can't create jobs," she said in response to a recent administration jobs announcement. She encouraged Obama to cut taxes instead.
Where Perry and Bachmann share the most common ground — and where Bachmann has the most detailed record — is on social issues.
Bachmann has a lot of credibility among religious voters, in part because she is deeply religious herself. She's long championed legislation to limit abortions, including a bill to prevent the new health care bill from funding the procedure. It's a commitment she's put to paper by signing a pledge to select pro-life appointees and advance pro-life legislation as president.
She's been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, fighting unsuccessfully as a state senator to put a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages on the ballot. And Bachmann's advocated teaching intelligent design in public schools, saying she supports putting "all science on the table and then letting students decide."
Perry is equally popular among church-goers. In early August before he announced his bid, Perry hosted a massive prayer event in Texas that attracted 30,000 people.
"There's no doubt the event established his bona fides with evangelical voters," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Jones pointed out that many religious voters were already impressed that Perry fast-tracked a bill through the Texas legislature that requires women seeking an abortion to get a sonogram 24 hours before the procedure.
Still, among some on the far right, Perry's decision about the Gardasil vaccine is controversial. Perry signed a 2007 executive order requiring all sixth grade girls to get the vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer. Opponents say the vaccine could promote promiscuity.
Though the Texas Legislature eventually overturned the order, Perry until recently defended his effort. Now he calls it "a mistake."
Tea Party appeal
For as similar as Bachmann and Perry are on the issues that will dominate the GOP primaries, it appears Perry is not only outperforming Bachmann in the polls, but he's snatching support from her base.
Putting other GOP nomination contenders aside, the polls show Perry clearly on the rise. A recent nationwide Gallup poll shows that Perry has 33 percent support among conservative Republicans, while Bachmann has 12 percent of their support. A separate poll conducted by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling among Iowa Republicans shows a similar trend. A third poll conducted by a Republican firm has Perry and Bachmann in a statistical tie for first place among likely Republican voters in Iowa, and in close contest for support among self-indentified Tea Party members.
But it's not just his appeal to the party's most conservative members that should have Bachmann worried, said Jim Henson, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
As the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry has developed a very good relationship with the business community and has a wide and deep network of rich donors who have never hesitated to help Perry out financially, Henson said.
According to a report by the campaign finance watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, half of Perry's donations over the last decade — about $51 million — have come from just 204 donors who supplied at least $100,000.
While Bachmann has a nationwide network, she has so far relied mostly on smaller donors.
"He's an institutionally powerful political leader who's made the most of his position," Henson said. "His fundraising ability and ability to connect with business elites is a skill that Bachmann doesn't have."
In that regard, Perry could be the ultimate cross-over candidate who has the ability to woo both economic and social conservatives, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College.
"At this point, Bachmann has to find a way to eclipse Perry," he said. "I think that the easy part of the campaign is definitely over for Michele Bachmann."
This story was originally published on Minnesota Public Radio's web site. A live web stream of Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard at mprnews.org. Copyright (c) 2011 Minnesota Public Radio. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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