How Michele Bachmann’s Surge Reshuffles the GOP Presidential Race

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

Rep. Michele Backmann greets a crowd in her childhood home of Waterloo, Iowa.

Last week’s Des Moines Register poll tells us — assuming nothing actually happens in Iowa over the next six months — that about 22% of the 125,000 or so Hawkeyes most likely to show up for next year’s Republican caucus will do so intending to vote for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

The Bachmann Express is the first big surge by a fresh face in the 2012 Republican­ primary sweepstakes. Reporters have dropped their obsession with Sarah Palin and scampered in Bachmann’s direction like dogs ditching chewed-up bones for a fresh slice of porterhouse. Liberals already nervous about the President’s failures on the economy and his cynical wiggling on gay marriage now curse at a new villain on their television screens, secretly hoping Tina Fey does something and quick, because this new GOP bogeywoman seems far more polished, and therefore more worrisome, than Palin ever was. GOP professionals curse under their breath and reach for another Excedrin. Damn, they say, what is it about our party base and hopelessly unelectable women in snappy outfits?

Meanwhile, poor Tim Pawlenty thumbs through the St. Paul Yellow Pages looking for a discreet therapist. For years, Bachmann sat howling on the noisy backbenches in the Minnesota senate while Pawlenty became the Sun King of state Republican power. Now Bachmann is the new Queen of Iowa, and Pawlenty, at 6% in the Register poll, cannot get arrested. That and a slew of bad press reviews after his New Hampshire debate performance have put his fundraising prospects in peril.

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What to make of all this? For starters, a Bachmann candidacy is catnip for the social-conservative wing of the GOP. It’s been waiting for a true believer, and unless Texas Governor Rick Perry decides to jump in late, Bachmann can grab a sizable piece of the GOP base, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. Her narrative of a tax lawyer turned anti-government crusader is the perfect Tea Party rewrite of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Already, the Bachmann boomlet has reset the expectations game in Iowa. The odds on Palin’s jumping into the race lengthen once again. With Pawlenty fighting to survive in Iowa, Jon Huntsman has an easier shot at breaking through in New Hampshire. The Huntsman hype machine must switch from selling the idea of his candidacy to reporters to selling the man himself to real voters. Without stronger New Hampshire poll numbers in the fall, the only precinct Huntsman is likely to carry will be the Morning Joe roundtable. The hopeful news for both Pawlenty and Huntsman is that for most primary voters, the campaign has yet to begin.

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Finally, the billion-volt electron microscopes of the national media will soon be trained on Bachmann now that she’s the official Iowa front runner. I’ll bet dollars to Minnesota lutefisk that despite her new squad of professional handlers, we are in for more of Bachmann’s factual fumbles. Her latest mix-up, confusing the birthplace of beloved American icon John Wayne with that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, hints that Michele’s next moves on the national stage may receive more than a few boos and flying vegetables from the voting public. While media criticism of her factually erroneous rhetoric will only help her with her populist base, what is gold for America’s comedians is a 500-ton lead sinker for any candidate trying to build enough party-wide support to actually win the Republican nomination.

This is why the uncontrolled giggling you hear coming from behind the big blue curtain is from Mitt Romney, who must be delirious with joy. For Romney, a two-way contest with Bachmann is a strategic dream come true. (Disclaimer: I worked for Romney in 2002.) It would draw attention and money away from his two real rivals, Huntsman and Pawlenty, and give him a simple race against a candidate who would remove much of the ambivalence many big-league Republicans still harbor about him. Make no mistake: faced with the terrifying prospect of nominating Bachmann and handing the presidency to Obama, the Republican establishment would rally hard and fast behind Romney. And while a unified Republican establishment in full combat mode cannot compete with the Tea Party when it comes to making cardboard Uncle Sam hats, GOP Inc. can easily crush a candidate like Bachmann over the full series of primaries.

But for now, front runner Romney is more than happy to lie low and let Bachmann eclipse the rest of the GOP field. For now, Michele Bachmann is the change Mitt Romney s been waiting for.

Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant.

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