By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Michele Bachmann won a new lease on life for her fizzling presidential campaign by aggressively targeting Republican front-runner Rick Perry and raising doubts about his conservative credentials.
But whether Bachmann can save a campaign that is clearly on the ropes is very much in doubt, just a month after she enjoyed her best moment of the 2012 season by winning the Iowa straw poll, an important early test of strength.
She has to prove to voters, and perhaps more importantly, her fund-raisers, that she would be more electable than Perry. She must also show conservatives she is the better candidate to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in November 2012.
That may prove difficult. Bachmann, of Minnesota, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives with a relatively thin legislative record. Perry, by contrast, is the longest serving governor of Texas in history and, like him or not, has deep experience as an executive.
But it is some of Perry's record as an executive that Bachmann attempted to exploit in the Republican debate in Florida on Monday. This time, she seemed to come back to life after a nearly invisible performance at a similar gathering in California last week.
"Bachmann needed to make some noise tonight and she did," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "She challenged Perry in a very aggressive way. That is going to help her win more votes."
Looking to curry favor with anti-government Tea Party conservatives who sponsored the debate and packed the room, Bachmann raised questions about Perry's conservative record on two fronts:
His executive order in Texas to require vaccinations for adolescent girls for sexually transmitted viruses that cause cervical cancer, and his decision to sign a law that lets young people who are in the country illegally pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
Both of these run against traditional conservative values, she argued.
A LOT OF GROUND TO COVER
Bachmann has to cover a lot of ground to catch up to Perry, perhaps an insurmountable climb. She polled only 4 percent in a CNN poll released before the debate, far behind Perry, who was at 30 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 18 percent.
Her immediate challenge is to raise enough money to have a credible showing by the time third-quarter fund-raising figures are released in mid-October.
Beyond that, Bachmann must win the country's first election contest of the Republican race to pick a presidential nominee, the Iowa caucuses on February 6.
Only a victory would springboard her to other conservative states like South Carolina, since Romney seems poised to win the country's first primary vote, in New Hampshire.
"If her performance tonight impacts her polling in Iowa over the next seven or 10 days, then you can say it was a success," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. "She has to either win Iowa or help Perry implode. Those are the only ways she can regain a credible path to the nomination."
It has been a dramatic fall for Bachmann, who was riding high during the summer only to drop like a stone once Perry entered the race and took away the social conservatives who had flocked to Bachmann's side.
Bachmann is trying to take the long view. Interviewed by CNN after the debate, she pointed out that the Republicans' eventual nominee, John McCain, was in a similar dire situation four years ago and went on to win.
"We're not at the end. This is a marathon," she said.