ORLANDO, FL and CONCORD, NH -- Just a month ago, Michele Bachmann was riding sky-high in the Republican presidential contest.
She had just won the closely watched Ames Straw Poll. And she seemed to have a monopoly on the outsider/rebel brand in the GOP field.
But since then, her national poll numbers plummeted; she became an afterthought in some recent GOP debates; and she finished dead last in the Florida Presidency 5 straw poll.
While several factors have contributed to Bachmann's reversal of fortune (including Rick Perry's entrance into the race and more gaffes by Bachmann), another reason has received less attention: a lack of outreach.
In interviews with NBC News, GOP officials and Tea Party leaders say that Bachmann has not seized opportunities to engage voters in key states -- including Florida and New Hampshire; in fact, she hasn't visited the Granite State since June 28.
Florida Republicans say Bachmann missed an opportunity last week to revive her campaign. They point to her decision not to invest resources in the straw poll, which meant that -- despite appearing at last week’s FOX-Google debate and other events -- she was not able to address delegates directly.
In a statement, the Bachmann campaign stressed its decision to invest resources in Iowa instead -- a strategy that’s meeting criticism in the Sunshine State.
“With Perry’s poor performance at the debate, this would have been an incredible opportunity for her to come out and really reestablish herself,” Sarasota Republican Party Chair Joe Gruters said of Florida’s straw poll. “Nobody’s talking about Michele Bachmann,” he continued. “It’s almost in stark contrast to having her in Sarasota over a month ago.”
Indeed, Bachmann visited Sarasota in late August, addressing one of her largest crowds to date. Gruters was responsible for arranging the visit. Cobbling together a network of Tea Party groups, he packed more than 1,000 people into a local Shriners temple.
It was a high-energy speech: When Bachmann paid tribute to the Tea Party, the crowd hollered and clapped. After she finished speaking, she danced swing-style with her husband, Marcus, as Elvis pumped through the speakers.
Gruters was impressed with Bachmann’s ability to connect to voters. “I thought she did a phenomenal job,” he said. “My guess is that she won at least 50% of them over.”
So he considers it odd he didn’t hear from the Bachmann campaign afterward, saying he never received calls about more events –- or even a thank you. “They’re MIA,” Gruters said. “In contrast, I hear from Perry and Romney’s guys almost every couple of days –- if not every day.”
“They have no campaign in Florida, period,” Gruters added about Bachman’s team. “They have a fundraiser on the ground I’ve talked to,” he continued. “But there’s no grassroots operations.” Still, Gruters insists Bachmann remains a draw in Sarasota. “If she came to Sarasota again, I think we’ll give her another thousand people,” he said.
Republican operatives speculate that money may stand in the way.
“Florida is an expensive state to play,” said Jamie Miller, a Republican Strategist and former executive director of the state party, who is close to Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s former campaign manager. Miller, according to the Miami Herald, had been rumored to be on a short list of names Bachmann’s team considered hiring onto a Florida staff.
Although leading GOP candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have yet to run television ads in Florida, Miller says the cost of media can deter second-tier candidates. A week’s worth of network advertising, according to Miller, can run $2 to $3 million. “My guess is Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman, to some degree are going to wait to see how well they are going to do in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
But Bachmann has not returned to New Hampshire since June 28. Her absence has been widely noted by loyal volunteers and organizers, many of whom continue to express support for her –- even while they air their frustration.
New Hampshire Republican Liberty Caucus chairman Andrew Hemingway organized Bachmann’s local events last spring and summer. He knows and likes Bachmann, but says he's deeply skeptical of her ability to perform well in the Granite State primary, following what he considers a lengthy absence. "Somebody who ignores New Hampshire to the level as she has is not running for president," Hemingway said.
Bachmann campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart tells NBC News that the campaign is proud of its support from New Hampshire Tea Party groups. “We communicate with them on a regular basis through calls,” she said.
“They’re an important part of our campaign, and share the same views as Michele does on limited government. They’re strong on immigration, and strong on faith and family.”
Stewart says the campaign is due back in New Hampshire next week. Citing a debate and event schedule that took the campaign from California to Florida twice over during a three-week period, Stewart said of New Hampshire: “It’s not been taken off the table by any means.
“It’s an important part of our campaign," she added.
(However, Bachmann Campaign Manager Keith Nahigian recently posted a power point video on the camapign's path forward, in which he says: “We are going to compete in New Hampshire, but not dominate our effort like we are in Iowa.”)
But in a state where voters expect to meet candidates in person not once or twice -- but five or ten times -- New Hampshire Tea Party leader Jerry DeLemus fears Bachmann’s staunch supporters have realigned with other candidates.
"The Bachmann people won't go to Romney, but they may lose some to Perry,” he said.
It is a pattern that has played out in presidential races in the past, say local Republican operatives. “There are more than a small number of activists who felt hung out to dry by Giuliani and Fred Thompson,” former GOP state party chairman Fergus Cullen said of the race in 2008.
Cullen, who recently wrote an op-ed criticizing Bachmann’s absence from New Hampshire, added this about Bachmann: “There's some hesitancy to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Mike Dennehy says Bachmann faces an uphill battle in a state where she’s fallen from 11 to 5% in polls.
“It will be very challenging to now develop an organization and establish yourself as a credible candidate in New Hampshire, because she has lost any momentum that she had, which she had in June and early July,” Dennehy told NBC News. “And it's just gone. And that's what happens when you stay away from the state for three or four months.”
But Dennehy, more than many, is inclined to believe anything is possible. He managed John McCain’s primary upset in 2000. Eight years later, as McCain’s national director, he was credited for reviving McCain’s floundering candidacy for a comeback win in New Hampshire.
“It's going to be difficult, but there's no better state to try it than New Hampshire because of the size. It's manageable,” he said.