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Bachmann's Challenge

There's but one fact worthy of consideration when mulling the dimension of the challenge facing Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) in her White House bid:

The U.S. has elected only one House member directly to the presidency.

That was James Garfield in 1880. A longtime Congressman, Garfield had the advantage of having simultaneously been re-elected to his House seat and appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio legislature at the time of his rise to the White House.

But for the 2012 election, a much different political epoxy paves the road to the White House than has blacktopped the trail in previous years.

More than 30 House members have run for president since 1912. Most of those candidacies have been since 1972.

Only a few of the House's heaviest of hitters have had a decent shot of securing their party's nomination. House Speaker Champ Clark (D-MO) nearly wrested the 1912 Democratic nomination away from Woodrow Wilson. House Speaker John Nance Garner (D-TX) finished third in 1932. Former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) won the Iowa Caucuses in 1988 and ran again in 2004. The late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) sought the GOP nomination in 1988.

The best-known House member to follow through with his campaign to November was former Rep. John Anderson (R-IL) in 1980. Anderson ran as an independent, securing seven percent of the vote.

But most campaigns from House members have been Quixotic efforts.

The late Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) ran solely on the platform opposing the war in Vietnam in 1972.

In recent years, Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX) have conducted multiple bids, drawing small but vocal, active bands of supporters. Paul is running again this year. He just won the straw poll for president at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

Washington, DC's non-voting representative to Congress, former Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-DC) ran a 1972 campaign to bring attention to how the federal government treated the capital city.

Also in 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) became the first African American woman to seek the nomination of a major political party.

But for many House members, their campaigns are pie-in-the-sky efforts that usually languish. A good example of this came from former then-Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) in 2008. Tancredo dropped out of the presidential sweepstakes just before the Iowa Caucuses. Tancredo told me he dozed off in his hotel room while watching the Caucuses. All of a sudden, a crawl on the bottom of the screen read "Tancredo-5."

"I thought, ‘I've made a mistake withdrawing,'" Tancredo admitted later, believing he had secured five percent of the Iowa Caucus vote. "And then I realized it was just five votes!"

And so Michele Bachmann begins her quest for the White House. It's a tall order to skip from being a House member in just your third term all the way to the presidency.

But the scene is different now for House members. And here's why Bachmann may be able to get some traction.

For starters, "conventional" and "experienced" candidates don't always do well in this derby. Look at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton losing to a first-term senator three years ago. Look at the fates of Vice President Biden and former Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) & John Edwards (D-NC) who also lost in 2008.

How about a little-known southern governor winning the entire shooting match in 1992 while big hitters like former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (D), Vice President Gore and Gephardt sat on the sidelines?

In fact, the model for Bachmann mirrors the success of another little-known, southern governor.

Jimmy Carter's name recognition hovered around two percent when he sought the Democratic nomination against California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), Sargent Shriver, Sens. Scoop Jackson (D-WA), Birch Bayh (D-IN) Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV). But Carter got an early jump on his rivals, visiting some 37 states even before the others entered the race. Carter failed to win the 1976 Iowa Caucus. "Uncommitted" did. But Carter came in second. And the press, scouring for a narrative, anointed Carter the de facto winner.

In many respects, Bachmann got the jump on many of her GOP rivals this time. Even though she just declared her candidacy Monday, the Minnesota Republican latched onto the mantle of the tea party movement long before many of other veteran candidates did. She founded the Congressional Tea Party Caucus last year and knocks around the country constantly, ginning up the support of conservatives.

At many of these events, Bachmann's a human ATM, bringing in serious campaign dollars. Numerous House and Senate Republicans courted her to headline their events. She's naturally charismatic and charming. Her outspokenness and penchant for controversy helped make Bachmann a fixture on cable news. When key news programs are on the air and votes are called on the House floor, it's typical to spot Bachmann, in full TV makeup, flitting back and forth between the Capitol and the array of news cameras positioned in the Rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building.

In short, Bachmann's been running for a while now. Perhaps even before she realized it.

But here's another advantage for Bachmann over previous House candidates: technology.

In 1992, independent Ross Perot used his personal wealth to hack into the political system and collect 19 percent of the vote.

With Perot's populist, anti-establishment, balance-the-budget message, he would have been an even more formidable force with Facebook and Twitter at his disposal.

Social media is a backbone in the tea party movement. And if Sarah Palin declines to run, Bachmann can capitalize on that wing of the party with her social media strategy. Sure, regular appearances on FOX, CNN and MSNBC boosted Bachmann's profile. But previously "outsiders," like those from the House, struggled to get a foothold on traditional media platforms.

With a candidate like Bachmann, social media becomes one of the great equalizers.

Which brings us to Bachmann's biggest liability.

This is what some may call the "Dan Quayle" factor.

Quayle got off to a rocky start with the press when President George H.W. Bush tapped the relatively unknown senator for his running mate in 1988. Voters from both parties immediately questioned whether Quayle was qualified to become vice president, let alone be a heartbeat away from the top spot.

This hale of criticism showered down on Quayle despite him already serving a total of 12 years on Capitol Hill.

Bachmann's been in Washington a little more than four years.

Which, in today's "throw the bums out" climate, could help more than hurt. Contemporary voters aren't looking for "experienced" politicians. Barack Obama's "newness" was one of the appeals of his 2008 campaign. A quarter of all freshman House Republicans never served in government before their election last fall. The public believes that "entrenched" politicians are responsible for many of today's problems anyway.

So Bachmann's inexperience might not be a factor here.

But Dan Quayle and Michele Bachmann share a dubious oratorical trait which could prove fatal: both sport a track record of saying either outrageous or wildly inaccurate things.

Quayle declared that he "didn't live in this century. He seized on the United Negro College Fund's slogan of "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" and contorted it into "what a waste it is to lose one's mind." While apparently channeling Copernicus, Quayle asserted that Mars is "the same distance from the Sun" as the Earth.

But Quayle's best-known gaffe came when he presided over a 1992 New Jersey spelling bee. The vice president then informed a student he had misspelled "potato."

"You left a little something off," Quayle corrected. "The ‘e' on the end."

Bachmann managed to step in it on Monday as she launched her presidential campaign in her hometown of Waterloo, IA.

Bachmann told FOX that actor John Wayne was also a native of Waterloo. He isn't. But serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 men and boys, did live in Waterloo for a time.

Bachmann also morphed John Quincy Adams a "Founding Father." In fact, John Adams was a prime author of the Declaration of Independence.

While speaking in New Hampshire in March, Bachmann mixed up the Free State with the Bay State.

"You're the state where the shot heard ‘round the world (was) in Lexington and Concord," Bachmann said.

The battles of Lexington and Concord unfolded to the south in Massachusetts.

Such blunders can easily tank politicians. A string of such slips can easily define a candidate in the minds of voters.

But social media presents Bachmann with a weapon that Quayle never had. While news programs distilled Quayle's bloopers into the only soundbyte ever played, Bachmann can use social media as a fulcrum. She can leverage errors against inspiring speeches and tightly-spun messages that resonate with voters on Facebook and Twitter. Bachmann has a chance to counteract her mistakes with messages of substance. Quayle never had that opportunity.

For most of America's history, a systemic, structural bias has hindered presidential candidacies from the House of Representatives. With the exception of Dick Gephardt, most recent House campaigns have been of the token variety, able to brew only single-digit support.

For that matter, it's also been a tough go from the Senate, too. Only Warren Harding, JFK and Mr. Obama were successful in leaping directly from the Senate to the presidency. Meantime, the berm of Pennsylvania Avenue are littered with the carcasses of seasoned politicians who failed to move from Capitol Hill to the White House.

But the landscape is different now. Which is one of the reasons Bachmann is excelling.

Just months ago, Bachmann couldn't conjure enough support to even break into the House Republican leadership structure. She withdrew her candidacy for chair of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-highest ranking position on the GOP side of the aisle.

Now Bachmann's the toast of the Republican field, running nip-and-tuck with Mitt Romney in Iowa.

There's a reason why James Garfield is the only House member to ever ascend directly to the presidency. But things have changed. And Bachmann's success or failure could indicate how much things have changed for viable candidates emanating out of the House of Representatives.