Tonight’s Debate: Bachmann’s Last Chance to Break Out?

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Let’s take bets. How long will Michele Bachmann wait before making her voice heard during Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate? In the Sept. 7 debate, Bachmann didn’t speak until the 14-minute mark. And when she did speak, she didn’t go on the offensive against Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the candidate winning over the far-right voters who make up her target audience. She’s since suffered the ignominy of being called “invisible” while pundits have reconsidered the first-tier candidate status afforded to her by her Iowa Straw Poll victory in August.

Since entering the race, Perry has captured Tea Party hearts. In an Aug. 26 Gallup poll, 35% of voters who identified themselves as Tea Partyers supported Perry for the nomination, compared to 14% for Bachmann and 14% for Romney. In a July poll, Bachmann took 20% of Tea Party voters, second to Romney’s 24%.

In The Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz writes that Bachmann, “the Tea Party queen,” needs “to capitalize on the sympathetic audience” at Monday’s debate. The question is whether capitalizing on the audience means attacking Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or both. If she parries with Perry, she risks splitting votes and making space for Romney to amble ahead. If she rumbles with Romney, she’s helping Perry, who has much more experience than the three-term representative, and similar conservative appeal.

However she does it, Bachmann goes into Monday’s debate with a need to make Tuesday headlines. And that means viewers are in for some bold statements and some good television.

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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