ROCK HILL, S.C. - After her victory in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll last August, Michele Bachmann went from front-runner to back-in-the-packer faster than any candidate in this volatile political season. First Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have risen to challenge establishment choice Mitt Romney, while Bachmann's support has been stuck in the single digits, not only here in South Carolina but in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country.
But now there's something happening with the Bachmann campaign. It's not a boom, not even a boomlet. But many Republican voters are recognizing Bachmann's sheer determination and tenacity. They've seen her take a lot of hits and keep going. They've seen her make mistakes and correct them. And as conservatives, especially social conservatives, look for a candidate to support against Romney, some are giving Bachmann a second look.
In the latest Des Moines Register poll, Bachmann is in fourth place in Iowa, behind Gingrich, Romney, and Ron Paul. Eight percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers support Bachmann, and another 11 percent say she would be their second choice. While she's far behind Gingrich's 25 percent, she has inched ahead of Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, and will also likely receive some part of Herman Cain's remaining support.
Bachmann ranks at or near the top when voters are asked who is the most socially conservative candidate, as well as who is the most principled and who is the most likeable. On the negative side, she finishes last or near last when voters are asked to name the most knowledgeable and most electable candidates.
Here in South Carolina, Bachmann has come to a mall in Rock Hill to promote her new book, "Core of Conviction." Sitting in her campaign bus near the bookstore, she explains she's trying to woo voters worried about flip-flops and squishiness among the front-runners.
"Of all the other candidates, I'm the consistent conservative in the race," she says. "I'm not a johnny-come-lately, I'm not a chameleon, not a recent conversion -- it is who I am. And I think that's what the social conservatives in Iowa are looking for. I'm the same person they voted for last summer, and I think when it comes to Jan. 3, they're going to come home."
Some voters here like the message. "I think she's principled, and she sticks to her principles from day one," says Colleen Sowers, who describes herself as an "anybody-but-Romney" Republican from nearby Weddington, North Carolina. "What she says is what she's going to do."
"She's held the line, she's not wavered," says Drew Ireland of Rock Hill. "Her core values of spending and reining in government I really like, and I don't think that's changed much."
The problem is, there's not much consistency among the voters in this crazy campaign season. "Oh my God, I'm one of those people who's gone through them all," says Greg Rickabaugh of Rock Hill. "First I liked Trump, then Perry -- I've got a Perry bumper sticker on my car that won't come off -- then I went to Herman Cain." Now, Rickabaugh says, he "definitely" supports Gingrich.
Bachmann is taking shots at Gingrich daily, calling him a Washington "influence peddler." "He's portraying himself as the big outsider," she says on the bus. "How can he do that when his organization, his conglomerate, is located on the Rodeo Drive of Washington D.C., which is K Street?" Right now, nobody much is listening. But there's no guarantee Gingrich won't falter, and Bachmann might move up another rung on the GOP ladder.
She knows she's made mistakes. She made some gaffes, and after her straw poll victory, her campaign kept her away from the kind of one-on-one voter contact that she does well. "They were running [the campaign] like they were running a rock star around the state," says one social conservative who admires Bachmann but does not support her. "She might as well have been flying over Iowa in a helicopter, dropping leaflets."
Now, Bachmann is by all accounts a better candidate, even though the campaign has been a bruising experience. "I defend this process," she says. "It's hard. But this process causes you to be more exacting. Everything you say gets recorded. That scrutiny ... causes us to be better."
Bachmann says she's confident about the race. "We're exactly positioned where we need to be," she claims. Of course, candidates have to appear optimistic, even when they're far back. But Bachmann has succeeded in staking a claim as a consistent, determined candidate. In the end -- and maybe in a future campaign -- a lot of voters will admire her for it.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.