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Tea Party queen Bachmann relishes unlikely rise to top of Republican field

Once viewed as a lightweight, Michele Bachmann has capitalised on her popularity among Tea Partiers and a lack of enthusiasm for mainstream candidates to rise toward the top of the pack of conservatives hoping to unseat President Barack Obama.


When US President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Michele Bachmann was a rookie Congresswoman from Minnesota, generally seen as a political lightweight with a penchant for making slightly kooky remarks on cable TV.

Barely three years later, the smiling, polished-looking 55-year-old former tax attorney – and foster mother to 23 teenagers – is nothing less than “a serious contender” for the Republican presidential nomination, according to Darrell West, a US government scholar at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution.

Indeed, despite her rather thin legislative record, Bachmann has capitalised on her charisma, her popularity among the most energized segments of the right-wing electorate (particularly Tea Party supporters), and a lack of enthusiasm for Republican candidates backed by the party “establishment” to rise toward the top of the pack of conservatives vying for the chance to unseat Obama in 2012.

Conservatism, religion, and ‘sex appeal’

Bachmann is often compared to another, even higher-profile conservative woman, former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, for her similar political leanings, strong religious faith, chipper demeanor – and for what a Republican operative recently called her “sex appeal”. Bachmann and Palin have denied any rivalry and have appeared in public together, though John Fortier, a political scientist at the non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that if she entered the race for the Republican nomination, “Palin would draw from many of the same people as Bachmann”.

For now, Bachmann is the one in the spotlight, her strength as a candidate stemming from what Fortier described as a timely confluence of economic, political, and personal factors. "First, she is a populist conservative on economic issues. Second, she is dynamic,” he said. “And third, like Sarah Palin, she is a dynamic conservative woman.” Given that, as Fortier noted, “earlier Republican women were more moderate”, Bachmann’s hardline politics make her – like Palin – something of a “novelty”.

Much of her success thus far in the race for the Republican nomination can also be attributed to a skillful navigation of the crucial early steps of a presidential campaign. “She is raising money, building an organisation, and attracting considerable media attention,” said West. “She performed very well in the first televised debate [June 13] and has a strong following among Christian fundamentalists, small government advocates, and Tea Party members.”

Widely reviled by US liberals, Bachmann has over the past few years earned a reputation on both ends of the political spectrum for making provocative or factually questionable declarations; in 2008 she called on the press to identify members of Congress who were “anti-America”, and last November she asserted erroneously that Obama’s state visit to India cost taxpayers $200 million a day. Pulitzer-prize-winning Web site Politifact found that Bachmann had the worst record of accuracy in her statements of all Republican candidates eyeing the party’s nomination. But on the campaign trail, Bachmann has struck a more sober tone, staying on-message with talking points about the economy and broad, but not outrageous, swipes at Obama (“We can’t afford four more years of Barack Obama”, she has hammered).

And though she continues to voice some controversial policy ideas, like her proposal to abolish the minimum wage, Bachmann has also been making strategic gestures toward the more mainstream wing of her party. In a bid to ease the perception that she is a fringe candidate, Bachmann has hired a handful of prestigious Republican consultants; some of her advisors have worked for A-list party figures like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

These efforts to bolster her credibility seem to be paying off: recent polls show Bachmann ahead in the Iowa primary that opens the race for the Republican nomination in February 2012, and running second behind frontrunner Mitt Romney in Republican voters’ preferences nation-wide. “Her goal now is to beat the rest of the field to the number-two slot and then go head-to-head with Romney,” West explained.

Grabbing the spotlight with soundbites

Though she was elected to Congress in 2006, Bachmann’s first brush with the national spotlight came during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she said during an interview that Obama “may have anti-American views”.

Since then, Bachmann has been one of the president’s most tireless adversaries, appearing regularly on TV to deliver cheerfully scathing criticisms of the healthcare overhaul, proposed tax increases, and federal spending – and occasionally more personal jabs at Democratic colleagues, as when she slammed former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for keeping a “$100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she's flying” (a claim later revealed as false). She has also emerged as a leading right-wing voice on social issues, speaking out frequently against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bachmann was not always a staunch conservative. As a student she volunteered for former Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s election campaign, though she has cited his stance on abortion, as well as economic policies she says resulted in higher gas prices, for her subsequent change of political stripes.

As a Republican, Bachmann has shown a willingness to put her own party on the chopping block – something that has endeared her to Tea Party activists who view both Democrats and Republicans sceptically. “Our problems don’t have an identity of party, they are problems created by both parties,” Bachmann told the crowds while announcing her presidential bid in Iowa on June 27.

‘Far to the right of John McCain or George W. Bush’

Even with the savvy and discipline that have gone into the initial phase of Bachmann’s campaign, and the momentum she has gathered, there are significant obstacles standing in her way. A recent gaffe on the campaign trail – she proclaimed that the Revolutionary War erupted in New Hampshire, rather than Massachusetts – revived concerns about her depth of knowledge, and her former chief of staff told journalists in February that Bachmann would not be “an electable candidate” for the presidency.

Meanwhile, controversies have continued to spring up around her, including allegations that the counselling centre she owns with psychologist husband Marcus (the father of her five biological children) offers therapy to “convert” homosexuals to heterosexuality. Marcus Bachmann has denied the claim, but a history of comments characterised as homophobic has haunted his wife throughout her political career. In a 2004 speech, Bachmann compared what she termed “the gay lifestyle” to “personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement”.

Such statements have resurfaced as reminders, even to many within her party, that Bachmann may be too conservative to win a general election. West qualified Bachmann as “far to the right of John McCain or George W. Bush”, and noted that “if nominated, she will be the most conservative major party candidate in many decades”. As such, Bachmann would have trouble attracting the more centrist-minded independent voters that often end up deciding US elections. Political insiders in Washington are indeed said to believe Obama is privately rooting for Bachmann to beat out her Republican rivals. “It would be easy to characterise her as right-wing, extreme, and too inexperienced to be trusted with the American presidency,” West said.

In the meantime, Bachmann may face competition from other conservatives popular among similar constituencies of religious Christians and Tea Party activists. John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center speculated that aside from Sarah Palin, Texas Governor Rick Perry – who has not yet officially announced his candidacy – could also hurt Bachmann’s chances. “Perry would be a large figure able to appeal to many Tea Party voters, but also with more of a foot in the conservative establishment,” Fortier said.

For the moment, though, Bachmann appears unflappable as ever, relishing a run that has surpassed expectations of pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle. “We can win in 2012, and we will win. It may have started small, but our voice is growing louder,” Bachmann said in her trademark Midwestern accent to Iowa supporters when announcing her bid last month. “Our voice is growing stronger.”

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