WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann's presidential hopes have lately taken a nosedive.
The Minnesota congresswoman finished dead last Saturday in the Florida Republican straw poll — six weeks after leading the field in Iowa's straw poll. And even when Bachmann does score some points, she sometimes has a tendency to overreach.
She attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his decision to require young girls to take an anti-sexually transmitted disease vaccine, but she was roundly criticized when she later suggested that the vaccine contributed to mental retardation, for which there is no evidence.
Her poll numbers remain in single digits, and her former campaign manager has been lobbing critiques of her stumbling performance from the sidelines.
Despite all that, the Republican presidential race remains in flux, and the results of Florida's straw poll could serve as a check on viewing anything or anyone in the race as a sure thing.
It was not just that businessman Herman Cain, who gets about 5.5 percent support in recent national polls — 2 points below Bachmann — won the Florida GOP exercise. It was that he drew more votes than Perry, the front-runner, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom Perry displaced, combined.
"It shows how closely people are paying attention, and how little they are listening to the media's opinion, which I think is a very powerful shift," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the larger organizations in the movement. "It should have been won by Romney or Perry. To see Cain win it, and decisively, was an extraordinary turn of events."
Indeed, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the Republican hopefuls, told an Iowa gun show audience on Sunday: "People are tired being told that these are the only two candidates (Perry and Romney) that you get to choose from."
Given the state of play, is Bachmann's political descent an irreversible free fall from the high of her Iowa straw poll victory last month?
Or, with the first real votes to be cast in just over four months, is it more a statement about the persistent fluidity of — and possibly dissatisfaction with — the Republican presidential field?
"For these candidates, the support is a mile wide and an inch thick," said Republican strategist Greg Mueller. "Romney voters might be Romney voters today, but might be Perry voters tomorrow. Perry voters might be Perry voters today and Bachmann voters tomorrow."
That's Bachmann's hope. A tea party favorite, Bachmann needs to win the Iowa caucuses early next year, or come close, to remain in the race. Even with forays to Florida and other key early states, Iowa is where her campaign intends to focus.
"In Iowa, it's a situation where you just meet with people and answer their questions," said Trudy Caviness, the longtime chairman of the Wapello County Republican Party in southeastern Iowa. "She needs to get out and see the people and answer their questions."
The state's faith-based conservative Republican electorate plays to her strength.
But it's fertile ground for Perry's evangelical politics as well. Preceded by a media-fueled will-he-or-won't-he campaign, Perry announced his candidacy the same weekend that Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll, stepping all over her moment.
It's been an up-and-down path for her ever since.
"I love her," said Meg Shannon, a retired lawyer and tea party supporter from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. "She rocks the base. But she's going to be viewed as a little too conservative. She frightens a lot of people."
Bachmann's campaign could use a jolt — and money. In her race for re-election to the House last year, she raised $13.5 million, more than any other member. Her presidential campaign took in $4 million last quarter.
But there is speculation that her third-quarter haul could disappoint, with Perry and Romney far surpassing her total.
"She has to some extent gotten lost in the Romney-Perry matchup," Meckler said. "But she clearly has a record to attract to tea partiers and conservative supporters. It doesn't mean she is ultimately the person tea partiers will support for president."
In Florida last week, Bachmann received a standing ovation at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering. Her message always includes a full-throated roar for conservatives to stand their ground on cutting spending and taxes, repealing the health care law and opposing President Barack Obama.
"Conservatives don't have to settle," Bachmann said. "We don't have to go to the back of the bus."
But her mistakes, like her comments about the Perry mandate on the human papillomavirus vaccine, have hurt her with some potential voters.
"You've got to be so careful," said Caviness, the Iowa GOP party official. "You've got to realize that anything you say could be put up in a billboard. Maybe that's more disciplined than what she, at this point, is trained to be."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY