If the history books are to be believed, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s chances of winning the White House are slim. But as she launches her campaign Monday in the state where she was born and where other presidential long shots have been vaulted into contention, she boasts an advantage unique—at least so far—in the Republican field: her ability to appeal to both tea party activists and Christian evangelicals.
Having never run a campaign beyond the relatively safe confines of the suburban Minnesota district that she has represented for three terms, Bachmann is trying to become just the second person to leap directly from the House of Representatives to the White House (after James Garfield in 1880).
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But Bachmann has shown “a unique ability to take her seat in Congress and take it up to the national level,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a friend of Bachmann’s and a potentially sought-after endorsement in the state whose caucus-goers will cast the first votes of the presidential campaign next year. She is kicking off her campaign there in Waterloo, where she was born 55 years ago. And she’s already off to a good start after a strong showing in last week’s Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, where she was virtually tied with Mitt Romney for the lead.
Bachmann rose to national prominence with the tea party movement, headlining a number of its events and grabbing headlines with her take-no-prisoners rhetoric (including her accusation that President Obama heads a “gangster government.”)
Last summer, Bachmann founded the House Tea Party Caucus, giving the stubbornly outsider movement a place inside the marble halls of Congress and establishing her status as the ultimate outsider’s insider. It’s one of several paradoxes about Bachmann that could work to her political advantage. Others: She’s a telegenic woman with a flair for combative rhetoric and a reluctance to exploit her gender. And unless or until Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets into the race, she appears to be the candidate best able to bridge the sometimes uneasy divide between the deficit-centric tea party movement and the moral imperatives of social conservatives.
At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans earlier this month, Bachmann advertised herself as a candidate singularly qualified to unite her party’s core constituencies.
“We need to add peace-through-strength Republicans, and I’m one of those,” she said. “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 goes out of her way to portray herself as a different kind of Republican. In an interview with National Journal last month, she talked about her teenage years as a Democrat (she worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign), her post-doctorate degree in tax law, and the business she started with her husband, Marcus. As she has in other forums, Bachmann also spoke about the 23 foster kids the couple raised in addition to their own five biological children. “People don’t necessarily think of a Republican, especially a conservative Republican, as having a heart, much less compassion,” she said.
She’s also gone to great pains to paint herself as the underdog in this race, and told NJ that 2012 is the year for leaders to emerge from the Republican fringe: “I think the country’s in a situation right now where we can’t take an establishment candidate from either party,” Bachmann said. “We need someone new and different and bold who’s going to do say what they mean and mean what they say, and do it, even if it means being a one-term president, and that’s what I’m willing to do.”
All the while professing great admiration for Sarah Palin, Bachmann appears irked by the seemingly inevitable association between her and the 2008 vice presidential nominee. Both are polarizing figures who appeal to—and turn off—the same constituencies. But there is at least one striking difference between the two: While Palin remains at war with what she calls “the lame-stream media,” granting her only extended recent interviews to Fox News (where she’s employed as a commentator), Bachmann has opened her office and her life to the press. She’s also showing she has a lower gear: In an interview Sunday on CBS News’s Face the Nation, Bachmann more narrowly focused her criticism of Obama on his stewardship of the economy and suggested she regretted calling him “anti-American” in 2008.
As she launches her campaign, Bachmann will be hoping to scoop up Iowa’s important evangelical constituency—up for grabs following former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run. She already has won over one Huckabee supporter: Veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who helped engineer Huckabee’s unexpected 2008 caucus victory, is working for Bachmann and has already begun recruiting other key players from his ’08 team.
“Iowa caucus-goers tend to be very conservative on both social and economic issues, so voters will be speaking [Bachmann’s] language,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and a member of the Republican National Committee. Voters “are looking for somebody who doesn’t click in with the establishment,” he added. “It’s still too early to see who benefits the most from Mike Huckabee’s exodus, but she’s certainly going to be among the candidates who do.”
But Bachmann’s gain in the Hawkeye State is a loss for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Minnesotan who has actively sought the tea party mantle. His campaign greeted Bachmann’s arrival in Iowa with a radio ad in the state that highlights his conservative gubernatorial record.
As for tea party support, Bachmann “doesn’t necessarily have it sewn up,” said Brendan Steinhauser, campaigns director for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s tea party organization FreedomWorks. “But frankly, I think she has a very good chance in Iowa.... The question now is, will she be able to win a national election?”