A Tea Party Star Stirs Iowans, and She Isn’t Palin
Matt York/Associated Press
By JEFF ZELENY
Published: April 3, 2011
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Sarah Palin, the reigning heroine of many social conservatives, has given few signals that she will make a presidential bid. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 on the strength of his appeal to evangelicals and other constituencies, has mostly offered reasons for not joining the race.
Steve Hebert for The New York Times
So into that space has come Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Best known as a fiery presence on cable television and the founder of the House Tea Party caucus, she is now exploring whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination. And early reaction to her in Iowa, where she was born and raised, suggests not only that she might do it, but also that she could have a substantial impact on the race.
On a break between meeting voters and conducting radio and television interviews — a staple of nearly every day — Ms. Bachmann took a seat in the bar of a hotel here and left no doubt that she was serious about running.
“It isn’t that I was born thinking I had to be president,” she said, leaning in and talking softer than she does on television or at Tea Party rallies. “I’m getting a lot of encouragement to run from people across the country. I don’t believe this is a rash decision.”
There is a pecking order in Congress, and Ms. Bachmann’s televised Tea Party response to the president’s State of the Union address irritated House Republican leaders, who had already rebuffed her when she sought a leadership position this year. But there are no rules of seniority in presidential politics, where exploring a candidacy takes little more than an airplane ticket to an early-voting state and a roster of curious party activists.
After a four-day visit to Iowa late last month in which Ms. Bachmann declared “I’m in!” at several stops, it became clear that Republicans were taking notice. At a minimum, the clamor among some social conservatives for Ms. Palin to run has quieted as the attention surrounding Ms. Bachmann has grown.
“If Congresswoman Bachmann gets in, she has the potential to appeal to a lot of people who might have gone for Governor Palin,” Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa said in an interview. “Imagine if they both got in. That could make it really interesting.”
Ms. Bachmann would have substantial obstacles to overcome. She has already made some high-profile gaffes — including declaring late last month that the opening shots of the Revolutionary War took place in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts — that raise questions about her preparation for the scrutiny of a national campaign.
Her Congressional office has experienced considerable turnover, including five chiefs of staff in the last four years. A former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, Ron Carey, resigned after five months in the post. He told reporters in Minneapolis that he would not support her presidential bid, saying, “She’s not going to be an electable candidate for us.”
Still, Ms. Bachmann, who turns 55 this week, demonstrated her national fund-raising ability by raising a record-setting $13 million last year in her House race.
While voters at this stage may be more inclined to listen than to sign on the dotted line, the energy she creates among leading conservative groups is unmatched by anyone but Ms. Palin.
“If Sarah doesn’t do something, she may find that the field has been pre-empted,” said Danny Carroll, a former state representative and a leading conservative activist. He said he did not know any Republicans who had recently heard from Ms. Palin.
Kent Sorensen, a Republican who was elected last fall to the Iowa Senate and has become a leader in the Tea Party movement, has signed up to work for Ms. Bachmann if she proceeds with a campaign.
“I don’t want to bash Sarah Palin, but she lacks substance,” Mr. Sorensen said. “I believe Michele Bachmann has more substance. I think she’d mop the floor with her, if you want me to be frank.”
Here in Iowa, where the caucuses are expected to open the party’s nominating fight, Ms. Bachmann has at least one other selling point she repeats to every audience.
“I come here as one of you — an Iowan!” Ms. Bachmann said on the steps of the Capitol, her voice amplified so much it could be heard a few blocks away.
Ms. Bachmann, who moved to Minnesota as a teenager, eagerly recounted how her Norwegian ancestors settled near Waterloo, Iowa. And she confides that she was raised a Democrat — she and her husband, Marcus, worked for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign — but she had an awakening reading a Gore Vidal book that she found to be “mocking our founding fathers.”
There is no other potential Republican candidate who delivers more crowd-pleasing one-liners — usually at President Obama’s expense. They come in a rapid-fire staccato with barely enough time for the applause to fade between punch lines.
“What we need is a change of address form for the person living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said over loud laughter. As she talked about what she contended was government expansion under the new health care law, she declared, “I want a waiver from the last two years of President Obama!”
Beyond her effect on any potential Palin candidacy, Ms. Bachmann’s entry into the race could have implications for other candidates seeking to appeal to the same slices of the electorate.
Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, is from the same state and is trying to appeal to the Tea Party movement. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania might lose whatever advantage he has among voters whose leading concern is opposing abortion rights. Mitt Romney is already struggling to explain the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts, and no candidate criticizes the health care plan pushed through Congress by Mr. Obama louder than Ms. Bachmann.
Ms. Bachmann said that if she joined the race, she intended to do so by early summer, leaving plenty of time to organize for the Iowa Straw Poll in August, which would be the first test of her influence on the field.
At the hotel here, Ms. Bachmann sounded less sure of herself when answering spontaneous questions than when delivering speeches at large rallies. She served six years in the Minnesota Senate and is in her fifth year in Congress. Asked if she thought she would face questions about her experience, she paused for the first time in the interview.
“I think that’s a good question, because people need to know the background of the person they will entrust with this greatest nation on earth,” she said. “I come from a modest background. I put myself through college and law school and a postdoctorate program in tax law.”
She also raised 5 children and 23 foster children, making her especially popular among conservative families. Ms. Bachmann appeared at a gathering of parents who home-school their children, where several voters, in interviews, mentioned Ms. Palin. The most obvious traits Ms. Bachmann shares with Ms. Palin may be their brown hair and their sex — people do not often approach Newt Gingrich and say he reminds them of Haley Barbour — but she said she was not bothered by being asked about parallels.
“I personally like Sarah Palin; she’s a lovely person,” Ms. Bachmann said. “I’ve had the privilege of meeting her and being with her on three different occasions.”
Ms. Bachmann said that all potential candidates needed to make their own decisions about entering the presidential race and that hers would not be influenced by anyone else’s candidacy.
“We need a strong, bold constitutional conservative who won’t back down and who will fight for the values we believe in,” she said. “That’s what we need for our nominee, whether it is me or whether it is someone else.”