WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's scathing attacks on Rick Perry may be hurting the front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination, and raising questions about her own judgment, but they are also helping another of her rivals -- Mitt Romney.
Once among the leaders, the Minnesota congresswoman lately has been stumbling badly in the race for her party's presidential nomination to run against Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
Top advisers have resigned, her poll numbers have been dropping and Bachmann has not attracted the big donors she would need to mount a credible 2012 campaign against Democratic President Barack Obama, whom some say will amass a $1 billion campaign warchest.
But she has no immediate plans to drop out, making her campaign an asset for former Massachusetts governor Romney, who has slipped from front-runner to second place since Perry launched his presidential bid last month.
"The net result of everything she is doing is making it more likely that Romney will be the nominee," Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist who worked on George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and who has donated to Perry.
Bachmann scored points against Perry -- boosting Romney -- in a debate on Monday night by questioning the Texas governor's conservative credentials over his order requiring that adolescent girls be vaccinated for viruses that cause cancer, with a vaccine sold by Merck & Co, a Perry donor.
She also blasted Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Bachmann had "peeled off" some support for Perry on the sensitive vaccine and immigration issues, and that he expected those attacks would continue.
"I think that she is grasping at straws right now and I do think that if she grabs the right one and hangs on, she could be around for a while," O'Connell said.
The focus quickly shifted to Bachmann's own penchant for verbal gaffes after the debate, when she linked the vaccine to "mental retardation," a claim scientists called irresponsible and baseless, fueling talk that she may be flaming out.
Bachmann was hit by a firestorm of criticism after her remarks. The influential conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said she may have "jumped the shark" -- slang for nearing the end of an effort -- with the vaccinations comment.
"Her really only path to the nomination now is to take out Rick Perry," O'Connell said.
Perry is well ahead, supported by an average of 31 percent in the Republican nomination race, to 20 percent for Romney and just 7 percent for Bachmann, according to polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
But while Bachmann is in the race, she is keeping supporters who likely would otherwise support Perry, not the relatively moderate Romney.
"The biggest threat that she poses to Rick Perry is not because she necessarily displaces him in any way, but because he is going to have two people fighting against him," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University in Washington.
Bachmann in particular still has pockets of strong support, as in Iowa, where social conservatives play a big role in Republican politics and where she won the closely watched Ames straw poll in August.
"I think the fact that Michele was willing to go on stage at the debate and go on the attack is a good thing," said Ryan Rhodes, a leader with the Iowa Tea Party, who said he was unhappy about Perry's position on immigration.
Bachmann was in California, home to many wealthy political donors, on Friday, but her campaign said she would be focusing primarily on Iowa, whose caucuses in February are the first binding votes of the nomination season.
Strategists said focusing on the small but important state made sense for the Bachmann team, which is burning through money quickly because her campaign favors highly orchestrated and expensive events.
Although known as a prolific fundraiser in Congress -- she topped all House lawmakers in 2010 -- Bachmann has never attracted big-dollar donors.
More than two-thirds of her donations in the second quarter came in increments of $200 or less. The third quarter is expected to be challenging for Bachmann.
Stan Hubbard, a Bachmann supporter who owns KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minnesota, said he had raised money for her in the past, but had not been called recently.
"They haven't called and it is going to be tough to raise money," Hubbard said.
Editing by Eric Walsh