Republican presidential candidate and conservative firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann attacked President Obama's health care plan and spending record at a breakfast fundraiser Thursday in San Rafael, but mostly steered clear of criticizing her fellow GOP candidates.
More than 120 people paid $100 each to gather in a Tea Party activist's home and hear the Minnesota congresswoman -- a rare conservative sighting in the liberal lion's den of Marin County. It was Bachmann's first Bay Area visit since she declared her presidential candidacy in late June.
The money was small beans, especially compared to the $35,800 per plate President Barack Obama will command at a Sept. 25 dinner in Atherton. But Bachmann's visit -- as well as Republican candidate Mitt Romney's fundraisers Friday in Atherton and Pebble Beach -- convey that there's GOP money and votes to be had even in liberal strongholds, especially in an election cycle when Democrats might see fewer districts and states as safe.
"Here in Marin County, do not lose hope because I truly believe this will be a wave election," Bachmann said, urging the crowd to recruit conservative candidates for local office. "Marin County could go red, you guys."
Strong rhetoric but unlikely, given that Republicans account for fewer than one in five of Marin County's registered voters.
Yet California's 2012 GOP presidential primary isn't winner-take-all, meaning candidates can pick up delegates here and there without carrying the whole state. San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston said someone like Bachmann could pick up 15 to 20 percent in the primary, especially if others ignore California on the assumption it will still vote Democratic in November.
Ignoring California doesn't seem to be the plan so far; Texas Gov. Rick Perry raised money here last week and Romney is here Friday. Gerston noted Romney has a head start: His 2008 primary run "allowed him to put together a network so his campaign is better developed in California than anyone else."
After San Rafael, Bachmann was headed to another private fundraiser, in Hillsborough, on Thursday and then to Southern California, where she had events planned in Orange County on Friday morning and a speech at the Republican convention in Los Angeles that evening.
Still, Romney and Perry aren't scheduled to address the state GOP convention this weekend in Los Angeles, as are Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. "She's likely to light a fire under some of these people," Gerston said.
California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said Thursday that presidential hopefuls do events of varying sizes and sorts in California because they want to tap two distinct veins.
"You need activists to help you get your message out and run up your vote total not only here but elsewhere" with phone-banking and other support to other states, he said. "And then of course California has been one of the largest donating states for years and years."
As for Romney and Perry, he added coyly, "the convention hasn't started, so who knows who'll show up by the end of it?"
Longtime GOP strategist Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics, said California's relatively late primary -- in June -- means the state might play a pivotal role in the GOP nomination only if earlier states leave contenders neck and neck. But he also said the relatively meager money Bachmann collected Thursday "is potentially a down payment on more significant support."
"The advantage of a small donation is that it engages a supporter into your campaign. They become an advocate for you within their community, they become a source of additional contributions as your campaign progresses," he said, noting President Obama's 2008 campaign "was particularly effective in attracting very small contributions from donors but then following up with them."
Bachmann talked to the San Rafael crowd for about half an hour, vowing to repeal President Obama's health-care reform law, reform the federal tax code, shrink the federal government and pour resources into domestic energy production. She also attacked the president for giving now-bankrupt Solyndra LLC of Fremont federal stimulus money and drew wild applause by vowing to stand behind Israel -- the latter, a message that helped buoy the GOP to victory in Tuesday's special election for New York City's heavily Jewish 9th Congressional District, which hasn't been represented by a Republican since the 1920s.
Gerston later Thursday noted recent California polls show the President's approval ratings at their lowest ebb.
"I think this very traditionally deep blue state has taken on a slight purple tinge," he said. "It can't be taken as much for granted as it might've been in the past. That doesn't mean he won't win, but it means he might have to work a lot harder to win."
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