Can Michele Bachmann Win the Republican Primary?

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US Rep. Michelle Bachmann greets supporters during a rally organized by Americans for Progress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC., November 15, 2010.

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann formally announced her presidential candidacy on Monday morning in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, before heading on a tour of early-primary states. (Yes, she already announced her run for the presidency, more than once, during the recent GOP debate. But that was just an announcement that she filed the necessary paperwork to make the official announcement, following her many pronouncements that an announcement would be forthcoming.) So now that the campaign has truly begun, what can we expect from Bachmann?

In speeches since the debate, Bachmann has solidified her stance as a candidate who will run more on what she will undo than what she has done. She will also capitalize on what she has refused to do, like voting to raise the debt ceiling, or unpopular ideas she’s rejected, like bailing out big banks. “I was the very first member of Congress, after the health care bill [passed], to go down to the floor the next morning and introduce the full-scale repeal of Obamacare,” she recently told the crowd at the RightOnline conference in Minneapolis, earning a standing ovation.

While some of her rivals have years at the helm of a state to draw on, Bachmann’s record of legislative accomplishments is thin. She entered the national scene in 2006, when she was elected to represent Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, which means the bulk of her time in office has been spent under Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress — conditions that have certainly inhibited her ability to pass legislation. In her career in the House, nearly all of her bills have failed to make it out of committee, including some of the ones she talks about the most, like the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act and her bill to repeal health care reform. She will have to rebut the charge that in Washington she has worked on cultivating her brand as much as anything else. “Michele has spent her time in Congress building her celebrity status,” said a spokesman for her opponent in 2010.

But it’s Bachmann’s celebrity that has made her a player in the GOP primary. By opting to give her own response after the State of the Union address — which drew rebukes from her colleagues in the House — and by forming the House Tea Party Caucus, which now has some 50-odd members, she has kept her name in the headlines. Incendiary statements — like accusing Obama of “turning our country into a nation of slaves” — have made her a hero for some on the right. Around the time of the June 13 debate in New Hampshire, Gallup conducted a name-recognition poll that placed Bachmann in the top half of 10 potential candidates, trailing only Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Her energetic, generally poised performance during the debate brought another slew of coverage, and a poll put out June 26 by the Des Moines Register showed her leading the Iowa field with Romney, whom she statistically tied, 22% to 23%.

Perhaps more than any other declared GOP candidate, she is reviled and loved. The Gallup poll showed Bachmann with a high positive-intensity score among Republicans — a measurement that takes the percentage of people who have strong favorable impressions of a candidate and subtracts the percentage who feel strongly unfavorably — that trails only Romney and Herman Cain. Meanwhile, she’s drawn the most unabashed rancor from other quarters; Matt Taibbi’s recent Rolling Stone profile opens by characterizing her as a “religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions.”

Her announcement in Waterloo comes at the beginning of a four-day tour of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. There and beyond, she will continue to court the Tea Party and solidify herself as the candidate closest to their hearts, an easier feat so long as other politicians who might attract their money and affections, like Palin and Texas Governor Rick Perry, stay out of the race. Both critics and supporters see Bachmann as the candidate best positioned to fill the void left by Palin, the first big love of the Tea Party — and an equally sassy northern woman who trumpets social-conservative values and provides almost constant catharsis for those unhappy with Obama.

Bachmann will likely continue to lash out at her rivals when they undermine any of the three legs of the conservative stool, as she did against Romney when he refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge. And she will be busy keeping up her reputation for strong fundraising. She raised $13.5 million, more than any other member of the House, during the last election cycle, showing national support. But presidential fundraising can reach heights of $50 million per quarter. (We’ll know more about how well her skills are translating once the latest disclosures come out mid-July.)

Her campaign will be built around polarizing themes: her crusade against same-sex marriage; her continual suggestions that Obama and his policies are “anti-American”; and her Evangelical faith. Perhaps her greatest weapon is her emotional connection with members of the base, who feel like she is one of them, the heartland foil to the Establishment machine.

This means she speaks the language of Iowa’s social conservatives, a “distinct advantage” Bachmann acknowledged yesterday on Fox News Sunday. “She is excited to make her formal announcement in her home state of Iowa, the place where her values were formed,” spokeswoman Alice Stewart tells TIME, adding that they “plan to spend a great deal of time in Iowa.” Bachmann doesn’t have the deepest résumé, but she has the excitement factor. She’s engaging to watch, a relaxed, colorful speaker who’s the only woman officially in the race. All of which bodes well for getting more attention during this revving-up stage.

But her Fox interview also accentuated that she still needs to prove she has the chops to succeed in states where she lacks a distinct advantage. Discussing her gaffes, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Bachmann if she were “a flake.” She countered him with her biography and called the idea “insulting.” Historical flubs aside, the question is worth considering. She was accused of flaking on her district to make her name on the national stage, and forming such close ties with the Tea Party amounts to a certain amount of flaking on the Republican Party. The Tea Party proved a force in the 2010 elections, but it was a liability in places like New Hampshire. Even if Bachmann shines bright in Iowa, it will take much more convincing that she’s a candidate strong enough — and appealing enough — for the entire right to pin their hopes on in 2012.

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