MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa – Republican candidate Michele Bachmann spent Saturday shaking hands in Iowa diners and strolling through a bustling farmers market as she tried to capitalize on her early popularity in the state that kicks off the presidential campaign season.
An Iowa native, the tea party favorite ranked nearly even with GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney in a recent poll of Republicans likely to participate in the state's lead off caucuses next year. But just six weeks before the state's closely-watched straw poll, the Minnesota congresswoman has done little to campaign or set up an organization here.
Beginning her first sustained campaign trip to Iowa as an announced candidate, Bachmann introduced herself to audiences from Iowa City to Des Moines in a new campaign bus emblazoned with her name. She spent much of Saturday posing for pictures and signing autographs rather than in meetings with key GOP activists.
"I have every confidence our team is going to deliver," Bachmann told The Associated Press after meeting about 100 supporters and politically curious Iowans at a stop in Marshalltown. "I am going to be here in Iowa campaigning all through July."
Proof that her Iowa campaign was still coming together met Bachmann in Iowa City, where she met about 100 weekend breakfast regulars and Republican activists at the Bluebird Diner near the University of Iowa. Local resident Sheila Reiland told Bachmann's campaign chairman in the crowded diner that she signed up last week on Bachmann's website to volunteer but had heard nothing from any campaign staff.
"She is my candidate, and I want to do what I can to help her," said Reiland, a registered nurse who went to Washington, D.C., this year to attend a health care rally Bachmann headlined. "But I haven't heard anything back."
Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, acknowledged having a lot to do in a short time since the Iowa Legislature was in session until Thursday. But he told Reiland: "You will be hearing from us."
Bachmann met privately aboard her campaign bus with activists en route from Cedar Rapids, where she strolled through the city's crowded downtown farmer's market, to Marshalltown about 70 miles west. She also planned to meet with GOP activists Saturday evening in Des Moines after headlining a tea party rally.
But her trip, which continues Sunday in western Iowa, was more about raising Bachmann's name identification around the state, Sorenson said.
Bachmann had been weighing a presidential bid since January but only began raising money toward a campaign in June. On Saturday, she dismissed claims that she was scrambling to get organized in Iowa. Bachmann said she had been laying the groundwork for her Iowa campaign since last month, before she officially announced her White House bid last week in her childhood home of Waterloo, Iowa.
In Marshalltown, campaign aides handed out supporter cards outside Taylor's Maid-Rite, a popular downtown lunch spot where about 100 people met Bachmann's bus. Standing on a platform next to the bus in the afternoon sun, Bachmann asked residents for support.
"We need your help at the straw poll. Will you come out and help me? We'll bring around the buses. We'll pick you up, whatever you need. We'll get you down there," she said. "We need your help because winning back the White House begins in Iowa."
Bachmann stopped short of saying she expected to win the straw poll, an early organizational test of support that draws thousands of Iowa Republican faithful -- and a heavy contingent of national political media -- to Iowa State University in Ames on Aug. 13.
But Bachmann said she hopes her close second-place showing to national GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney in The Des Moines Register's recent poll of Iowa Republican caucusgoers makes her the favorite for the event.
"I certainly hope that's the case," she told the AP. "We're certainly working to make that happen."
Bachmann plans to return to Iowa next week, aides said.
David Harris of Marshalltown was signing his supporter card and said he planned to go to Ames for the straw poll. The Republican said he had not participated in the caucuses for more than a decade, but said he was drawn to Bachmann's popularity with tea party supporters.
"She has an energy that's stirring the grassroots, people like me who have not been part of politics for a while," Harris said.