SARASOTA — Hurricane Irene bypassed the state and spared Michele Bachmann's first campaign foray in Florida this weekend, but now she has to contend with Hurricane Perry.
Even as the Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate courted big crowds as part of a four-day campaign swing through the state, she faces a serious Florida challenge from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
First, she must convince voters she's preferable to a proven, small-government conservative who shares her evangelical bona fides but has executive experience.
On top of that, she faces a Perry campaign building a formidable Florida organization.
"I like Michele Bachmann a lot,'' said Stephen Gately, a Republican activist from Pinellas County who was among more than 1,000 people at a Bachmann rally in Sarasota on Sunday afternoon. "But I'm supporting Gov. Perry. I prefer governors as our nominee."
While Bachmann was courting evangelical and tea party voters along the Interstate 4 corridor, at least 50 GOP activists from as far as Brevard and Collier counties converged at a Tampa law office Saturday to start a grass roots Perry organization in Florida.
"I spoke to Rick Perry Thursday night," said Wes Maddox, a GOP activist in Tampa who went to Texas A&M with Perry, who is expected to make his first Florida stop Sept. 13 in Tampa Bay. "He said, 'You tell them (in Florida) help is on the way.' That's what the governor's message is — help is on the way."
Florida is expected to play a key role in deciding the nominee, as GOP leaders aim to make the Sunshine State the fifth contest in the primary schedule.
"I intend to win Florida, and win it twice — once in the primary and once in the general election," Bachmann, 55, told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview aboard her blue campaign bus Sunday evening. "We're extremely serious about winning Florida, and we believe that we can. We intend to go voter by voter, city by city, county by county to get our message out, and it's already resonating."
Drawing more than 1,000 people to a Shriner's temple in Sarasota on a Sunday before Labor Day is proof that Bachmann is a political force who can't be underestimated. But capitalizing on grass roots enthusiasm requires an organization.
It's coming, Bachmann said.
"Remember, our campaign just began in the end of June," she noted. "To be this young of a campaign and to have won the Iowa straw poll was just an amazing achievement. We've already put quite a few stakes in the ground in New Hampshire, and seeing some strong support there. The same in South Carolina, and now we've started on Florida."
On her decision not to actively campaign for the state GOP's "Presidency 5" straw poll, she said she hopes people vote for her but she simply could not devote the resources and time.
The only name the campaign provided of someone helping organize for her in Florida was former Clearwater resident Peter Waldron, her faith outreach coordinator who ran a basketball program for at-risk youth in Tampa Bay until government funding dried up amid questions about its effectiveness. Waldron, who once spent 37 days in a Ugandan jail after being arrested with assault weapons and accused of terrorist activists — charges were dropped — on Sunday accompanied her to Idlewild Baptist Church near Tampa.
She did not address the megachurch but was warmly introduced and cheerfully shook hundreds of hands before heading to Sarasota, a bastion of moderate Republicans that nonetheless turned out in force.
She hailed the tea party as being common-sense Americans who understand government shouldn't spend more than it takes in, know they're taxed enough already and want government to abide by the Constitution.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."
Plenty of people in the crowd said they were interested to learn more about Perry, but Bradenton retiree Philip Staples said he's already sold on Bachmann. "She's got the fire in the belly, and she's a straight shooter. She's one of the common people,'' he said.
Asked in an interview to spell out the chief difference between her and Perry, Bachmann pointed to her record leading the charge against most of President Barack Obama's agenda and willingness to buck her own party.
"The difference, I think, is that I've been in Washington over four years actively fighting against all of the measures that people want gone. If people are looking for someone with a proven track record to trust with the highest office of the land, someone who means what they say and says what they mean, I do that. People who see in me someone who's genuine and authentic and also someone whose a champion, a champion for the principles,'' she said. "We can't just have a manager in that seat."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.