POINCIANA, Fla. – Dozens of golf carts line the streets of the upscale retirement community where Michele Bachmann campaigned Saturday, tell-tale signs that the candidate was a long way from Iowa, where she recently triumphed in the state Republican party’s straw poll.
In Bachmann’s first visit to Florida -- where she was prompted to address Cuba, Israel, the space program, and offshore oil drilling -- the congresswoman from Stillwater, Minn., was like Dorothy when she steps into Technicolor and notes that she’s not in Kansas any more.
“You’re Cuban, yay!’’ Bachmann exclaimed in response to a question about Fidel Castro from 66-year-old retiree Gabriela Menendez, who has lived in the U.S. since 1961. “You made it out, yay! We’re glad that you’re here.’’
Bachmann’s three-day swing through Florida will test whether she can transfer the charisma and grassroots organization that gave her rock-star status in Iowa into a much larger and more diverse state that will be equally, if not more, influential in choosing the Republican party’s 2012 nominee. While Iowa traditionally hosts the nation’s first nominating contest, Florida is jockeying to vote fifth.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who also visited this retirement community during his presidential campaign, sidestepped Iowa and virtually cinched the 2008 nomination in Florida.
A new Sachs/Mason Dixon poll here shows Bachmann with 13 percent of the Republican vote, lagging behind Mitt Romney's 28 percent and Rick Perry's 21 percent. While Romney campaigned heavily in Florida in 2008, Perry and Bachmann are just starting to get organized.
Her debut trip is targeting reliably Republican enclaves, including this central Florida county that even a hometown Democrat, former Gov. Lawton Chiles, didn't win in his successful reelection bid. The county seat, Bartow, was named in honor of the first Confederate officer to die in the Civil War.
In her speech to about 300 people at the Solivita retirement community, Bachmann hewed closely to economic topics such as the national deficit, federal spending, and entitlement programs for seniors.
But on Saturday night, when she addressed a gathering of Christian conservatives in Orlando, she gave a much more personal, religious speech that at times sounded like a sermon. She spoke in depth about her miscarriage and her religious awakening as a teenager, using extended Biblical references.
"That is our challenge as believers in Jesus Christ, in whatever sphere of influence God has given to us," Bachmann told the audience at the Florida Family Policy Council dinner. "Maybe it’s as a lawmaker, maybe it’s as a businessman or businesswoman, maybe it’s as a politician, maybe it’s as someone who is running for president of the United States... to say, 'Yes, Lord, I will pour myself out.' That is my call to action for all of you this evening."
Perry, who himself recently hosted a national prayer gathering, has yet to visit Florida since he launched his campaign two weeks ago.
“The question is whether Perry takes all the wind out of her sails with people from the culturally right side of the party,’’ said Republican consultant Tre Evers, who has worked on statewide campaigns. “That’s a group Michele Bachmann will do really well with, but they have another choice with Perry.”
Bachmann has said she will not compete in Florida’s straw poll on September 24, known as Presidency V, but promised to visit “many, many, many times.’’ Romney is not contesting the mock election either, leaving a potential opening for Perry. The poll of Republican activists gives lesser-known candidates a chance to make a splash in the nation’s largest battleground state but can drain their time and resources.
At the retirement community, Bachmann showed the charm that has helped her surge from underdog to contender in one of the most unpredictable Republican primaries in decades. She playfully asked the elderly audience if they were old enough to remember Ronald Reagan, and she dropped the name of the newly-elected Republican senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. “Remember that debt ceiling fight?’’ she asked, drawing a chorus of groans. And later: “Does this feel like a recovery?’’
Gene Nicotra, 69, said he didn’t know what to expect and came away impressed. “I think she really felt what she was saying. It wasn’t a canned speech,’’ he said, watching Bachmann sign autographs afterward.
Though part of the Republican majority in the House, Bachmann cast herself as a "lone voice in the Washington wilderness'' fighting the mounting national debt. She argued that the U.S. is propping up the Chinese military, paying federal employees far more than their counterparts in the private sector, and exiling corporations to Ireland in search of lower taxes.
On energy, Bachmann called the U.S. "the king-daddy dogs."
"We're sitting on a mother lode of treasure. Why in the world aren't we using it?'' she asked. "It's because the radical environmentalists have demanded that we lock up all of our energy resources.''
Perry, the governor of Texas, and Romney, a successful corporate executive, are largely running on their records of creating jobs. In contrast, Bachmann paints herself as having led the opposition against Obama, be it his economic stimulus plan or his health care agenda.
"People see in me a candidate with backbone,'' Bachmann said, before boarding her campaign bus to go to private meetings with potential donors. "I'm not a compromiser. I have a record over the last four-plus years of fighting in Washington against everything that's led to this downturn in the economy.''
Bachmann's increasing popularity has been accompanied by a more controlled campaign style that one Iowa activist recently disparaged as "the Barack Obama rock star crap.''
Standing in front of the bus after her speech, she called on a handful of reporters chosen by her press secretary instead of randomly fielding questions, as most candidates do. The sound system that played Elvis Presley when she walked into the retirement community's ballroom had been moved outside for the press conference, giving Johnny Cash the last word.