NEW ORLEANS, La. -- If there's one thing second tier Republican presidential candidates have over the front-runners, it's their ability to fire up a crowd. So while activists at the Republican Leadership Conference here aren't going to have the chance to see the biggest names in the GOP field, they are instead being treated to a rich diet of red meat from candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Every four years, the GOP's hard core populist conservatives seem to vault one of their own into position to compete with the better-funded establishment candidates. On Friday, all four members of this year's second tier made their case that they ought to be the Chosen One.
Each has dedicated followers. Paul attracts a younger, anti-war crowd that wants to audit the Federal Reserve. Cain, who hosted a popular conservative talk radio show in Atlanta, brings the crowd to its feet with his fiery rhetoric. Santorum has a long history with social conservatives; he touted his role in a six-hour debate over partial birth abortion during his Senate career.
But it was Bachmann, coming off her surprisingly strong showing at a debate of Republican contenders in New Hampshire, who seemed most likely to break through. To do so, she'll have to appeal to a much broader coalition than any of her rivals. And, she said Friday, she's the candidate best able to do so.
"We need to add peace-through-strength Republicans, and I'm one of those. We need to add the fiscal conservative leg, and I'm one of those. And we most certainly need to add the social conservative leg, and I am one of those," Bachmann said.
"Telling our great story, I think is going to require a great leader," she added. "I am here to say to you, I am ready too. Let's go together."
Few members of Congress can make an appeal that fires up Tea Party activists like Bachmann does. She hit all the high notes a talk radio host might hit -- opposition to President Obama's health care reform measure, raising the debt ceiling and government regulations that would require new energy-efficient lightbulbs ("President Bachmann will allow you to buy any lightbulb you want," she said, bringing the crowd to its feet).
Bachmann, Cain and Paul packed the auditorium Friday afternoon, but only Bachmann held the attention of the media. She drew about 25 reporters to a press conference following her speech, even as Santorum took the stage.
Her standing in the national polls lags front-runner Mitt Romney, and she doesn't have the establishment support of her fellow Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty. But Bachmann, who speaks tomorrow at an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored event in her home state, could prove the wrench in both former governors' plans for winning the Republican nomination.