Michele Bachmann falls from grace

From top GOP contender to bottom of the barrel

In a mid-September debate on CNN, moderator Wolf Blitzer questioned Perry about an executive order he'd signed that required 12-year-old girls to get an HPV vaccine called Gardasil.

This was a vulnerable issue for Perry. On its face, using the government to make Texans take a vaccine used to prevent a sexually transmitted disease went against everything the values voters stood for. But Perry also had deep ties to Merck, the drug company that produced the vaccine.

Mike Toomey, Perry's close ally and onetime chief of staff, was a lobbyist for Merck. The company had also donated to Perry's gubernatorial campaign, which made the fact that Perry bypassed the Texas Legislature and unilaterally signed the order look like a political payback. Now, Perry was even admitting he made a mistake, leaving himself wide open for an opponent to take the kill shot.

"I'm the mom of three [daughters]," Bachmann chimed in. "And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong. That should never be done."

After a month of losing ground to Perry, it appeared Bachmann had finally found her cudgel. But she quickly wandered into the thicket of pseudo-science.

The next morning, Bachmann appeared on The Today Show with Matt Lauer to talk about the debate. Lauer wanted the congresswoman to elaborate on her comment about the dangers of the HPV vaccine. Bachmann told Lauer the story of a mother who had approached her after the debate.

"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine—that injection—and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," claimed Bachmann. "It can have very dangerous side effects."

Bachmann never revealed the mother's name, but we can safely assume she wasn't a member of the medical community. The story contradicted all scientific evidence about the vaccine, causing a row among medical experts nationwide who accused Bachmann of pumping fear and propaganda into the public consciousness for political gain.

Among them was Dr. Steven Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who didn't appreciate Bachmann muddying the reputation of a vaccine that could save lives.

"In the case of HPV, we have a wonderful chance to prevent cervical cancer," says Miles. "It's a worthwhile goal. And to trash that for political points is just the height of irresponsible demagoguery, and that's what she did."

Miles started a Facebook page offering a $1,000 bounty for anyone who could verify Bachmann's tale. A colleague upped the ante and threw in another $10,000, and the gamble quickly went viral.

Bachmann eventually conceded she had "no idea" if the mother's story was true, which didn't do much to help her image as a serious candidate. It was the most jaw-dropping gaffe of her campaign.

"And by the way," adds Miles, "I'm not out 1,000 bucks."

Lost Sheep

On September 16, Bachmann appeared in the most awkward Jay Leno interview in recent memory. For 10 long minutes, Leno asked her about everything from Rick Perry to the debt ceiling, with hardly a single laugh to break the tension, despite some excruciating attempts by Bachmann.

The most painful part of the interview came when Leno asked her about her husband's controversial clinic, Bachmann & Associates. Specifically, Leno wanted to know more about the "pray away the gay" services that Marcus offered, which Leno compared to trying to convert a left-handed person into a righty.

"See, when I heard that, I really thought it was like a mid-life crisis line," Bachmann replied, trying to deflect the question. "Pray away the gray, that's what I thought it was."

"Oh," said Leno, seemingly unsure if Bachmann was making a joke. "Well, you know what I'm saying."

Aside from being bad television, the interview posed a new problem for Bachmann. On Leno, she was failing in front of a mainstream audience that hadn't even thought about the 2012 election yet.

"Public perception is really an important thing, and has always been an important thing in politics—all the way back to Machiavelli," says Donald Downs, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "When you get a certain label on you, it's hard to get back."

And it wasn't just Leno—Bachmann was being spoofed across pop culture. Stephen Colbert lambasted her on his show, accusing her of buying the Ames Straw Poll, while Kristen Wiig's impersonation of Bachmann was a regular character on Saturday Night Live.

All the attention seemed to reinforce the same general impression that Bachmann is a goofball, says Hamline's David Schultz.

"She is cemented through pop culture as somebody who is not on top of the details, not the strongest candidate," says Schultz. "And once it's etched in pop culture, I think, you're dead. I think it's impossible to reverse that."

The Exodus

In late October, news broke that Bachmann's New Hampshire staff had collectively resigned. Ever the optimist, Bachmann simply denied anyone had quit.

"That is a shocking story to me," Bachmann told Iowa Radio. "I don't know where that came from. We have called staff in New Hampshire to find out where that came from and the staff have said that isn't true, so I don't know if this is just a bad story that's being fed by a different candidate or campaign. I have no idea where this came from, but we've made calls and it's certainly not true."

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