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Bachmann camp cries foul on outside groups in run-up to Ames Straw Poll

At a Michele Bachmann rally in Fort Dodge, IA, last Sunday, a volunteer from Strong America Now -- a nonprofit group pushing to eliminate the federal debt -- handed out flyers alerting the crowd to a debt-reduction pledge the group is asking GOP presidential candidates to sign.

But the address on the back of the flyers didn’t match that of the Texas-based advocacy group. Instead, it listed the Brooklyn, IA, PO Box of a political firm called Campaign Headquarters – whose president, Nicole Schlinger, is an adviser to Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign.

Strong America Now is looking to play a large role in the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13 by busing voters to the event and buying their tickets. Schlinger’s connection with the issue group -- and Pawlenty --  is drawing criticism from Bachmann’s campaign, which believes the connections are unethical.

Schlinger, whose company oversees Strong America Now’s grassroots effort in Iowa, is among a small group of Pawlenty advisers with links to outside issue groups. Two other Pawlenty campaign advisers -- Chuck Larson Jr. and Karen Slifka -- work as P.R. consultants with the Iowa Energy Forum, an energy-independence group sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. The group is enticing Iowa voters to attend straw poll with an “air-conditioned igloo” and a chance to win an iPad 2.

A fourth Pawlenty adviser, Ed Failor Jr., also works with the Iowa Energy Forum, according to an article Tuesday in the Iowa Republican.

These outside groups’ links to the Pawlenty campaign, first reported by the Des Moines Register, are raising the question of how close candidates and issue groups should be. And they’ve become the focal point for a brewing fight between the Pawlenty and Bachmann campaigns.

The charge from Team Bachmann: These outside groups are aiding Pawlenty in next week’s Ames Straw Poll.

In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Michele Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chair, Kent Sorenson, accused Pawlenty of “trying to hijack nonprofit organization for his own political gain.”

Sorenson, an Iowa state senator, added that Pawlenty had “sunk to desperate and unethical attempts to win the Ames Straw Poll.”

In response to a question about the connection between the Pawlenty campaign and these outside groups, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant told NBC News “There is none. That would be illegal.”

Conant added, “'We have consultants and voluntary advisers who have multiple clients, which is not unusual.”

Instead, Conant says, the real story is an example of political posturing by a rival campaign. “I think the Bachmann campaign's accusations are malicious, and so much of what they say is made up," he said.

In a statement to NBC News, Joe Shannahan, spokesman for Larson and Slifka’s firm LS2Group, said: “Any suggestion that our firm or IEF [Iowa Energy Forum] coordinates with any candidate is absolutely false. LS2group is familiar with and fully compliant with FEC rules.”

Schlinger could not be reached for comment by NBC. But she told the Des Moines Register in an e-mail, “We know what the rules are in regard to coordination, and operate within them.”

Since the news surfaced about Schlinger’s ties to the Pawlenty campaign, her firm, Campaign Headquarters, has been pulled from its responsibility coordinating Strong America Now's activities for the Ames Straw Poll. Campaign Headquarters, however, will continue to do other work for Strong America Now, such as managing field staff and phone calls in Iowa.

Strong America Now promises a plan to reduce 25% of waste across the federal government. Its pledge has been signed by six candidates, including Pawlenty. Among the major figures in the Republican field who have not signed the pledge: Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and Jon Huntsman.

*** UPDATE *** Strong America Now says that Campaign Headquarters has been pulled from a majority of its responsibilities coordinating the group's straw poll efforts. But Campaign Headquarters will continue to do other work for Strong America Now, such as managing field staff and phone calls in Iowa.