Bachmann’s Coming-Out Party: The Minnesota Clipper Knocks ’Em Dead in New Hampshire

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Representative Michele Bachmann used Monday night’s CNN-WMUR debate among GOP presidential hopefuls as an unconventional venue to make it official: she’s running for President.

“I just want to make an announcement here for you, John, on CNN tonight,” Bachmann told the debate’s moderator, John King. “I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States today, and I’ll very soon be making my formal announcement. So I wanted you to be the first to know.”

Her statement was followed, minutes later, by an e-mailed press release, making it official that Bachmann will not seek re-election to Congress, but instead aspires to the highest office in the land. “Our country needs a leader who understands the hardships that people across America have been facing over the past few years and who will do what it takes to renew the American dream. We must become a strong and proud America again, and I see clearly a better path to a brighter future,” she said in the statement. “For these reasons, earlier this evening I instructed my team to file the necessary paperwork to allow me to seek the office of President of the United States.”

(More on TIME.com: See a recap of the GOP presidential debate.)

Bachmann had pledged to make her decision in Iowa — and her formal announcement will likely still be there — but in announcing it at the debate, she captured headlines and buzz. In many ways, the Minnesota Congresswoman stole the show. As the only woman on the same New Hampshire stage where in 2008 then Senator Barack Obama quipped condescendingly to Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough,” Bachmann outcharmed her male rivals. She slapped Newt Gingrich on the wrist playfully when he said he preferred American Idol over Dancing with the Stars (a subtle dig at Sarah Palin?), with a cackling laugh that sounded eerily like Clinton’s. She gushed when asked to choose between Elvis and Johnny Cash, and finally said, “Both.” And she underlined her biography, mentioning her 30-plus-year marriage, five biological children and 23 foster kids three times.

She smartly threw Obama’s words back at him on the debt ceiling, saying someone “far more eloquent than I” had once made the case to vote against it. Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling as a Senator in 2006 — a vote he says he now regrets. She spoke convincingly of her impassioned pleas to the House GOP conference and then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to block TARP in 2008. She spoke forcefully of her pro-life bona fides. And she showed surprising foreign policy chops as the newest member of the House Intelligence Committee in articulating her opposition to U.S. action in Libya. “That sound you hear is millions of jaws hitting the ground by Bachmann’s stellar answer on Libya,” tweeted RedState.com’s Erick Erickson. “She just did very well with that.” Less than an hour into the debate, “Bachman” [sic] was trending on Twitter.

(More on TIME.com: In GOP New Hampshire Debate, Bachmann Provides Fireworks as Romney Escapes Unscathed)

Bachmann benefitted from low expectations. “She was as good in this debate as she was awful in her alternative response to the State of the Union address,” says Larry Sabato, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia. “I can see why she might do better than expected in Iowa and beyond.” And she showed that she is, actually, quite media savvy. She didn’t make the announcement of her candidacy in her opening remarks, as that was precious time she could use on her biography, instead waiting for her first question on a proposed repeal of financial regulation to do it. She was poised and relaxed. She even impressed some Democrats. “[Former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney’s polish was perhaps to be expected,” tweeted Washington Post liberal blogger Ezra Klein. “But Bachmann is much newer to politics than much of the field. Her ease is impressive.”

Bachmann used the debate to speak directly to the audience at home. She was one of the few candidates who looked at the camera, often addressing it rather than the audience in front of her. And her big announcement wasn’t her only proclamation of the night. “I want to make a promise to everyone watching tonight,” she said, underlining the fact that she was the first congressional member to introduce a bill to repeal Obamacare. “As President of the United States, I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare. It’s a promise. Take it to the bank; cash the check. I’ll make sure that that happens.”

And on answering a question about the Tea Party, she added a direct plea to all Republicans: “We need every one of us in the three-legged stool. We need the peace-through-strength Republicans; we need the fiscal conservatives; we need the social conservatives. We need everybody to come together, because we’re going to win. Just make no mistake about it. I want to announce tonight, President Obama is a one-term President!” she yelled over cheers and applause. “We’ll win!”

A strong Bachmann candidacy could spell trouble for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is betting on Iowa. Bachmann, with her 23 foster kids, has a natural appeal to the Hawkeye State’s powerful home-schooler and Evangelical voting blocs. Her ascendancy could also spell trouble for Sarah Palin, if the former Alaska governor is indeed thinking of running. The two women would compete to appeal to similar voters and donors.

(More on TIME.com: Pawlenty’s Poor Debate Showing Risks Donor Flight)

The firebrand Bachmann — who once labeled AmeriCorps a dangerous example of Big Government, rather than a volunteer program; accused Obama of spending $200 million on a trip to India by bringing 2,000 staff members and 34 warships with him — a charge the Pentagon labeled “comical”; and accused the Census Bureau of spying on Americans by asking for too much information — was toned down during the debate. The only hint at her Tea Party roots came when she called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, which she said should be renamed “the job-killing organization of America.”

Of course, Bachmann remains relatively untested. “Media is going to hunt down and check out all 23 foster kids if she wins Iowa,” tweeted GOP strategist Mike Murphy. She is just entering her third term, and with only five years in Congress, she can’t employ the familiar GOP criticism of Obama that he is too green and unqualified for the job.

(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 debate flubs.)

There is also some question about her staying power. Though she started off the strongest in the debate, she faltered toward the end. “As a second-tier candidate, she punched through and surprised everyone with a good first performance,” says GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “However, she gave a confusing answer over the role of the federal government and the rights of the states over gay marriage.” Bachmann said she supports the right of states to make up their own mind on gay marriage and also that marriage should be federally defined as being a union between a man and a woman — contradictory positions. She also fumbled a question about whether “Don’t ask, don’t tell” should be reinstated, saying it should be up to the “commanders in chief.”

But Monday night was still a net positive for the Minnesota Congresswoman, a well-used opportunity to raise her profile and make the big announcement.

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