Thomas Fitzgerald: Bachmann's 100-watt start

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann dancing with her husband, Marcus, before speaking Tuesday in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann dancing with her husband, Marcus, before speaking Tuesday in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (JANET BLACKMON MORGAN / Sun News)

The tea party favorite added a spark of excitement to the GOP field.

Posted: July 03, 2011

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Republican presidential candidate from Minnesota, turned away from her audience at a campaign stop Wednesday and pointed to the small of her back.

"I may have a yellow dress on back here," she said. "But I have a titanium spine."

The crowd in Daniels Island, S.C., went crazy.

In New Orleans, 2,000 conservative activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last month were moved in a similar way, stomping, whistling, and cheering when she delivered this ringing call to arms: "President Bachmann will allow you to buy any lightbulb you want!"

The GOP nomination race has gotten some electricity at last with the entrance of Bachmann, a 5-foot-2 live wire with a cheerleader smile, an authentic connection with supporters in the tea party movement, kinship with evangelical Christians - and a propensity to say almost anything.

"You make me tingle, Michele!" a fan shouted in South Carolina.

She has surged to the lead in an important poll of likely participants in Iowa's leadoff caucuses - 60 percent of whom were born-again Christians in 2008, according to exit surveys. She has tripled her support (to 11 percent) in New Hampshire, with its slightly more moderate Republican electorate for its first-in-the-nation primary, in a new Suffolk University poll.

In its early phase, the GOP campaign has been dominated by a struggle to become the leading conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, whom many on the right distrust because of the former Massachusetts governor's once-moderate stands on social issues and his authorship of a health-care program that shares important characteristics with the one President Obama signed.

Bachmann is the latest to be cast as the anti-Mitt, in a party divided as usual over competing visions of conservatism: the populist, tea party strain and the traditional business-oriented strain represented by Romney.

Plenty of Republican politicians have tried to suck up to the tea party, but Bachmann recognized its power early, encouraging and cultivating the movement focused on shrinking government and strict adherence to constitutional principles.

She soared to fame on the basis of uncompromising rhetoric, accusing Obama in 2008 of "anti-American views." She called global warming "voodoo . . . a hoax," denounced the census as a Big Brother exercise, and in the past advocated repealing the minimum wage, saying it stifled job growth.

But Bachmann has made a connection. Consider the lightbulbs: She has introduced legislation to repeal federal energy-efficiency regulations that opponents say will lead to the extinction of incandescent bulbs, and her characterization of those regs as an unconstitutional government intrusion into private homes has struck a chord with many conservatives. Of course, the bill has not made it out of a House committee, and Bachmann, in three terms, has no real legislative achievements to speak of.

In addition, she has sometimes stretched the truth with her scorching rhetoric. Fact-checkers at one nonpartisan site, Politifact, tested 23 Bachmann statements and rated just one true, nine false, seven "pants on fire" whoppers, and six partly true; another, FactCheck.org, identified "a slew of off-base claims."

Still, she is no obscure representative from Stillwater, Minn., and smart rivals are not taking her lightly. By virtue of her profile as a tea party champion, she raised $13 million in her 2010 reelection race, more than any other House member. And she can transfer the cash to a presidential committee.

A native of Waterloo, Iowa, Bachmann is seen as a decent bet to win the Iowa caucuses in February. What happens after that is anyone's guess.

In New Hampshire, the tea party is only "about 20 percent of Republican primary voters," said Fergus Cullen, former GOP chairman there and now a political consultant. "The question is: Can she expand her support?"

In that sense, she could be this year's Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher won the 2008 Iowa caucuses but struggled to move beyond his socially conservative base.

Jeff Coleman, a conservative Republican consultant in Harrisburg, sees differences.

"She certainly picks up where Huckabee left off," said Coleman, founder of Churchill Strategies and a former Huckabee supporter. "She's got the tea party street cred that he didn't have - primarily because of the Club for Growth." The powerful antitax group opposed Huckabee for raising some taxes in Arkansas and increasing state spending.

That "kept Huckabee from going mainstream," Coleman said. "She doesn't have that baggage, and might have the ability to knit together the coalition of social and economic conservatives."

She is running against history: No woman has been the nominee of a major party, and no sitting House member has won the presidency since James Garfield in 1880.

Then again, she's got that titanium spine.


Thomas Fitzgerald:

An overture of suggested candidate theme songs. Michael Smerconish, C1.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at philly.com/bigtent

 

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