Michele Bachmann, Centrist?

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Most GOP candidates turn hard right in the primaries – especially nowadays with the Tea Party threatening purity tests and primary challenges of any RINO, or Republican In Name Only. But not Michele Bachmann.

The Minnesota congresswoman, who Monday announced her candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, is already chair of the House Tea Party Caucus. She raised an eye-popping $10 million for her 2010 reelection campaign – more than any other House candidate – on the strength of her national popularity with über conservatives. As Michael Scherer and I wrote two years ago, Bachmann is the queen of dropping a rhetorical bomb – like, say, accusing President Obama of holding “anti-American” views – and then harvesting the rewards online, to the tune of millions of dollars, from the extreme wing of the Republican Party to whom those kinds of comments appeal. Her fiery rhetoric was part of the reason few establishment insiders considered her a real contender for the nomination: she was often viewed more as pundit than a politician.

Enter Michele Bachmann 2.0. Part of the reason Bachmann drew such acclaim for her CNN/WMUR debate performance two weeks ago is that she successfully measured her tone and sounded almost… wise. And then today, in announcing her official candidacy, Bachmann took pains to emphasize her bipartisan roots and spirit.

“When we lived here, I grew up a Democrat,” she said, talking of her childhood home of Waterloo, Iowa, where she made the announcement. “My first involvement in politics was working for Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976.”

“[T]hrough the rancor of a campaign, let us always remember there’s always so much more that unites us as a nation than divides us, because our problems don’t have an identity of  party, they’re problems that were created by both parties,” she said.

Sound familiar? This is from Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston: “Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said.

Bachmann’s announcement was striking in that she is coming from a place so far to the right that she seems to be worried about her appeal to mainstream GOP primary voters. The result, while superficially attractive to the chattering classes and perhaps more importantly national GOP donors, has been troublesome policy-wise. When asked, for example, about her position on gay marriage after her announcement, Bachmann said she supports both the states’ rights to rule on the topic as well as a federal amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Talk about being on both sides of an issue. The question is: Can Bachmann transcend her own polarizing politics? And in the primary season: Why does she want to?