Michele Bachmann has niche appeal

She suggested Barack Obama was anti-American, condemned the president's healthcare law as "the crown jewel of socialism," called Washington a "gangster government" and state judges who affirm gay marriage "black-robed masters." She has tormented her own party's leaders, complaining that GOP insiders are resisting her efforts to roll back $105 billion in healthcare spending.

But as she nears a bid for the Republican nomination for president, Michele Bachmann is campaigning only partly as "tea party" provocateur — and partly as hometown girl.

Iowa voters hear it time and again: The Minnesota congresswoman was born in the first caucus state, and spent her early years here before moving under protest to the next-door state she now represents. More than that, Bachmann takes pains to point out that she is an "Iowegian" — a distinction with political significance in northern parts of the state, thick with voters of Norwegian descent who helped the Iowegian governor win office. She is one of them.

"I am a w-a-a-y conservative," she told a Des Moines audience of several hundred home-schooling families who share the same moorings, adding, "I may be 5 foot 2 … but I am one tough lady."

Nationally, Bachmann may be best known lately for faux pas — a widely released video of her tea party response to Obama's State of the Union address, in which she aimed her gaze at another camera; more recently, she mistook Concord, N.H., for the Massachusetts launching site of the Revolutionary War.

Yet in Iowa, Bachmann is cutting a passionate, sometimes electrifying, figure in a relatively bland field of 2012 contenders. Her deeply conservative profile meshes neatly with the early primary calendar, a potential advantage in a wide-open race and particularly in two early contests in Iowa and South Carolina.

"She has the 'it' factor. There's just something about her. She kind of grabs you," said Ed Failor Jr., an Iowa anti-tax activist who played host to Bachmann at a fundraising event this year.

Yet Bachmann, 55, is a polarizing presence. Her candidacy, should she formalize it, would rely less on broad support than on a fervent embrace from voters who inhabit niches in the Republican fold — home-schoolers, tea party advocates, antiabortion activists. Both Bachmann's strategy and her persona make her trajectory impossible to predict.

She hasn't decided whether to run, she said in an interview, but is already casting a wide net. She's reaching out to fiscal conservatives and seeking to expand her support among evangelicals. In notoriously tax-phobic New Hampshire, the first primary state, she brandishes tea bags and boasts of pressuring Republicans in Washington to make steeper spending cuts.

"The message that I'm talking about is resonating with what people are concerned about, and so the two are meeting," she said in an interview. "To me, that's exciting."

If she runs, she'll jump in in time to compete in an Iowa straw vote this summer. That same early organizing test four years ago helped lift another social conservative, Mike Huckabee, to victory in the state's caucuses, the initial step to the nomination.

"I take calculated risks," Bachmann said. "I always have."

A tax lawyer who ousted a more moderate Republican to win election to the Minnesota Senate in 2000, she attributes her combative spirit to growing up as the only girl in a family of boys. One brother became a popular TV weatherman in Des Moines; another is on the Yale School of Medicine faculty.

In three terms in Congress, Bachmann has built an impressive national donor base; she raised more than $13 million in 2010, a record for a House campaign. Her fans include people like Tina Dicks of Bondurant, Iowa, a home-schooling mother of four who sees her reflection in Bachmann, a fellow home-schooler, mother of five and opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights. Iowa's network of 10,000 home-schoolers could prove extremely valuable in a presidential process where mobilizing as few as 40,000 voters could mean victory.

"She doesn't sound like a politician to me. She seems like a woman who is speaking from her heart. As a conservative and as a mom, I like what she has to say," Dicks said. At this point, she added, she prefers Bachmann to Sarah Palin, to whom the congresswoman is frequently compared. "Sarah Palin talks a little bit more like a politician talks."

Critics, including many Republican politicians, say Bachmann is too extreme to be elected president, or even nominated.

"I'm not sure she has the ability to articulate a convincing argument without appearing shrill," said David Roederer, a strategist whose job as advisor to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa will keep him neutral in 2012.

Another problem is Bachmann's repeated gaffes. Bachmann brushes aside questions about self-discipline and calls verbal slips an inevitable result of so much speaking. She says she owns up to mistakes, often with self-deprecating humor.

Humor "is enormously helpful," she said, noting Minnesota's reputation for dry wit. She links herself to humorist Garrison Keillor: They graduated from the same high school, many years apart, and "my mother is in a quilting club with his former mother-in-law." (Keillor hasn't returned the love; he described Bachmann, in a fundraising appeal for her last opponent, as an embarrassment to Minnesotans.)

Bachmann has lined up Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson to head her prospective campaign in the state. He earned national attention for his sponsorship of a measure that would have required presidential candidates to supply a birth certificate in order to run. In Iowa Republican circles, he is regarded as a comer, a tea party politician with a network of supporters.

Iowa's most conservative congressman, Republican Steve King, is also viewed as a Bachmann supporter, though he hasn't endorsed yet.

"Face to face, one on one, any size group you want to talk about, she's a great retail politician," King said, highlighting a valuable skill in a state that expects personal attention from candidates.

Among many unanswered questions about 2012 is whether voters who have never been part of the nominating process will turn out. If tea party adherents swell caucus turnout in Iowa, as some expect, Bachmann could benefit.

"It's a boom or bust thing," said Eric Woolson, a longtime GOP strategist working for another Minnesotan, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, about the caucuses in general and Bachmann in particular. "You just don't know. That's the big unknown."

paul.west@latimes.com

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