Tea Party firebrand eyes top job

By Rupert Cornwell

She has five children and long dark hair. She is prone to gaffes but can fire up a crowd. She appeals strongly to the conservative wing of her party - Tea Party types and born-again Christians alike.

She's a terrific fundraiser and is seriously considering a White House run. Oh - and she's not Sarah Palin.

In the lacklustre Republican contest to produce a challenger to United States President Barack Obama next year, meet Michele Bachmann. She has been a member of Congress for barely four years and is hardly a blip in polls. Officially she is not even a candidate.

But in a show-stealing performance at a political conference last weekend in Iowa, the state whose caucuses will kick off the 2012 Republican primary season, she certainly sounded like a candidate - and one who just might turn the fight for the nomination on its head.

These, of course, are early days. If the Republicans have a front-runner, it is either Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor, or Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister and one-time Governor of Arkansas, who were the closest challengers of John McCain in the 2008 primaries.

But Huckabee seems uncertain whether to enter the race, as does Palin - both are wondering whether it is worth sacrificing comfy and lucrative jobs as Fox News commentators for the rigours of a presidential campaign. And herein lies Bachmann's opening.

On paper her qualifications are slim. She used to be a Democrat and in 1976 served as a 20-year-old volunteer on the Carter campaign. But she quickly saw the folly of her ways and by 1980 was working for Ronald Reagan.

Later she became a tax lawyer and an anti-abortion activist before winning a Congressional seat in 2006, representing a district northwest of Minnesota state capital, Minneapolis.

From the outset she made an impact. Bachmann may lack experience but not drive, self-belief or a talent for self-promotion. That was evident in January 2007 when then President George W. Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress.

Afterwards, as Bush signed autographs in the customary manner, Bachmann, then a Congresswoman of three weeks, clung to him for 30 seconds to finally be rewarded with a presidential kiss. The scene, which was televised, generated much mirth on the internet and among political commentators.

On Capitol Hill, she attracted more attention as an outspoken Republican conservative who opposed fluorescent light bulbs and called for new oil exploration (shades of Palin's "Drill, Baby Drill" routine). Global warming, she asserted, was a hoax.

As the Tea Party movement - anti-government, anti-immigrant and anti-healthcare reform - became a force in the land, Bachmann emerged as its de facto liaison officer in the House. When the Obama Administration was pushing its cap-and-trade energy legislation, she appealed to Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous" to stop it.

When the 112th Congress convened in January, Bachmann was the natural founder of a new Tea Party caucus, at the head of a faction that soon proved a thorn in the side of the Republican leadership. For that reason, she was blocked in her bid to become Republican Conference chairwoman.

She was, however, given a coveted position on the House Intelligence committee - a position that would shore up her skimpy foreign policy credentials in any presidential run.

Bachmann says she will make a final decision by June. But she has already taken the penultimate step of setting up an exploratory committee and behaves more like a candidate every day.

It may be all but inconceivable that she could win the nomination, let alone the presidency, but she should not be underestimated.

Money is the mother's milk of US politics and Bachmann can raise it - reportedly US$13.5 million ($18 million) during her second term in Congress.

Iowa is an ideal starting point for any Bachmann campaign. As a politician from next-door Minnesota, she is not only already well known there, but she was born in Iowa.

The caucuses, moreover, are dominated by social conservatives. "Social conservatism is fiscal conservatism," she thundered to the cheering crowd at last weekend's conference.

In 2008, Huckabee's victory in Iowa turned him into a serious contender. Bachmann will count on a strong performance to do the same this time around - something that is all the more likely if Palin and Huckabee decide to sit out 2012.

THE REPUBLICAN FIELD

Declared or likely:
* Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts.
* Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House.
* Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota.
* Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi.
* Herman Cain, a pizza chain owner and talk show host.

Uncertain:
* Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas.
* Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska.

- Independent

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