POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 25, 2011
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. » As Rep. Michele Bachmann's blue bus pulled up to a recent rally here, a campaign aide shooed a reporter poised to ask a question from the spot where she would step down. "Our arrivals are closed," he said.
After her speech under a scorching sun, Bachmann popped back into the bus to freshen up before meeting reporters and their high-definition cameras, looking as pulled-together as if she had visited a day spa.
All presidential candidates try to control their image. But the campaign of Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa straw poll this month who is now battling to be seen as a national front-runner, is more controlling than most, carefully stage-managing her contacts with the news media and the public.
That control is partly about her appearance, a far more complicated issue for a female candidate because there is no voter consensus on what looking "presidential" means for a woman. Viewers of a televised debate this month with seven male candidates scratched their heads when Bachmann disappeared offstage during commercials, before learning she was touching up her makeup.
A recent profile in The New Yorker included a scene aboard a campaign plane in which an aide warned journalists not to photograph Bachmann in cargo pants.
But the Bachmann campaign's controlling instincts go beyond the candidate's makeup and wardrobe.
Unlike other candidates who let reporters fire questions after a public appearance for five or 10 minutes in a scrum, known as a "press avail," Bachmann takes questions in a well-mannered way at a microphone stand in front of her bus — but only from reporters whose names she calls from a list, like a substitute teacher.
The list is compiled by Alice Stewart, Bachmann's press secretary, and whether she prescreens reporters and their questions to control the candidate's message is an open issue.
Stewart insisted that she did not. The list, she said, is to exclude "Obama trackers" looking to provoke a gaffe, and to ensure that local reporters are not crowded out by the national media. Local reporters' questions often are less pointed.
Brandon Herring, a reporter for WMBF television in Myrtle Beach, said Stewart had approached him while Bachmann spoke and asked if he wanted to ask a question. He said he did. "She said, ‘You want to ask about Myrtle Beach, I imagine,"' Herring said. "I was like, yeah, I guess I do."
Bachmann's public appearances are generally slicker than other candidates. The public is often seated in a circle around a small stage, or she picks a photogenic background like the aircraft carrier Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
The campaign's events recently came under scrutiny after a series of reports of staff members physically confronting journalists to keep them away from Bachmann. An ABC News reporter, Brian Ross, said on air last month that he was grabbed and pushed while trying to ask a question, and Don Lemon of CNN complained of being elbowed and falling at the Iowa State Fair. In a report last week, Politico counted five encounters it labeled "unusually hostile."
Stewart said the incidents were distorted and resulted from campaign staffers' efforts to protect a candidate who is often mobbed by ardent fans.
"In light of the Gabby Giffords incident, security is the No. 1 priority every time we step out in a public event," she said, referring to the January shooting rampage in Tucson that left the U.S. representative seriously wounded.
During three days of campaigning in South Carolina last week, where the crowds were smaller than in Iowa, there were no similar incidents. Bachmann was unusually accessible to supporters, chatting, posing and signing autographs long after her speeches, and she made herself available to the news media, albeit within the bounds of her call-your-name procedure.
The campaign seems determined to play down the subtle makeover that Bachmann has undergone since she entered the presidential race in mid-June. The campaign spent $4,700 on a hair and makeup stylist in the next two weeks, according to its finance reports.
Analysts said this was unsurprising — in fact, the campaign would be derelict if it did not anticipate how female candidates' appearances are more intensely judged.
"Women are scrutinized in a much more personal way," said Tiffany Dufu, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan group that advances women in politics. A study the group did of Elizabeth Dole's run for president in 1999 found she received more news coverage of her personality and clothing than the men in the race, and less of her positions on issues.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, said female candidates still face such scrutiny, citing an unflattering photo feature on The Huffington Post comparing Bachmann's long eyelashes, apparently false, to Tammy Faye Baker's.
"I'm assuming that the people handling Michele Bachmann are studying what happened to Hillary Clinton closely in the last campaign," Walsh said. "There was tremendous focus on what she wore and how her hair looked and whether her blouse was showing cleavage. I would think that would lead them to being overly cautious and careful."
Stewart, however, said Bachmann was no more focused on controlling her image and message than any other candidate. "She's concerned with spending time with the people," she said. "What she looks like is not of as much concern."