MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Before the Republican presidential debate Monday night, people tended to encounter Rep. Michele Bachmann in 10-second sound bites, often on left-leaning cable shows. Once, she claimed that a presidential trip to India was costing taxpayers $200 million a day. Another time, she said President Obama holds "anti-American views" and suggested many members of Congress did, too, and that the matter might bear investigating. More recently, she proclaimed that the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts.
Bachmann, in other words, can be flaky and prone to flights of wild assertion. But usually in ways that endear her to conservatives and drive liberals nuts. The three-term Minnesota congresswoman is a cheerful culture warrior, a pro-life mother of five (plus 23 foster children) whose upbeat lack of concern for political verities -- she delivered her own response to the president's State of the Union address -- has made her a tea party favorite. Think Sarah Palin, without the aggrieved victimization.
Bachmann has always seemed limited by the same qualities that make her irresistible to a certain kind of conservative. But on Monday night, she displayed a broader appeal. From her very first answer, which she used to declare her presidential candidacy, Bachmann sounded not only cogent but often convincing.
Rather than coming across as a fringe figure, she looked as if she belonged on stage with the other candidates, outshining most of them and comporting herself in a way that seemed plausibly presidential. That's been the challenge that most other tea party candidates have failed. Other heroes of the movement, from Sharron Angle to Christine O'Donnell to Rand Paul, have often frightened ordinary voters. But on Monday, at least, Bachmann did not.
"That was the first time that a lot of people got to see her as a real talking person and not a sound bite,'' said Lawrence Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "It was like her coming out party: the Michele Bachmann presidential debutante ball."
What was intriguing is that she managed to bridge the divide between tea party and mainstream Republicans, a feat that few others have accomplished. Bachmann proudly proclaimed her faith -- she's head of the House Tea Party caucus -- and then went on to give several examples of how she had applied it in Washington.
She noted that she had introduced legislation to overturn President Obama's two major achievements, health care reform and financial regulation. But she also emphasized her independence from the Republican Party by explaining how she had taken the lead on the issue that most offends many conservative voters, the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- the bailout -- devised by George W. Bush's administration. "I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP," she said. "It was a wrong vote then. It's continued to be a wrong vote since then. Sometimes that's what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party."
Bachmann was the evening's breakout star. But there is likely to be a limit to how far she can go. For all the attention she draws to herself, she hasn't actually done much in Congress. "She runs on what's wrong, not on what she's accomplished,'' said Jacobs. And several people who have worked for her, including her former chief of staff, have stated that she has no business running for president.
Still, she has at least three big factors working for her: the deep dissatisfaction among conservative voters with the current presidential field; the palpable yearning for a candidate to emerge and challenge Mitt Romney, who remains unpopular in many quarters; and her own record as a prolific fundraiser with a distinct national profile -- something her debate performance is certain to enhance. She has another thing going for her, too. She's exactly the type of politician who ought to appeal to Iowa's socially conservative Republican caucus-goers. (She was even born in Waterloo, Iowa.)
Bachmann's history of slip-ups and strange claims makes it a little hard to believe that the woman who shone in the debate is here for the duration. But Republicans are yearning to be excited. They'll make allowances. If Bachmann can keep it together a little longer, this may not be the last surprise she offers.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
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