Outspoken But Not Outmaneuvered, Rep. Bachmann Manages Her Candor

She called for an expose to root out members of Congress who are "anti-America." She gave President George W. Bush a public hug and a kiss so famously awkward one paper called it the "death grip." She claimed to know of a secret plan to partition Iraq and carve out a "terrorist safe haven zone," and then backed off the statement.

And then she won re-election.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has shown an uncanny knack for infuriating critics with sometimes off-the-wall behavior and comments, all the while advancing her own political career.

Minnesota politicos say the Republican congresswoman, having fended off perhaps her toughest challenge last year, could hold on to her seat indefinitely -- thanks in part to the conservative makeup of her district.

But Bachmann, a lightning rod of the left, also may be poised to run for governor or senator, according to the political chatter. Either way, the longer Bachmann stays in office, the more she seems to rile her opponents nationwide with a style some call genuine, but others call clueless.

"For what pisses off the Democrats, it really energizes that conservative base she has," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political professor at the University of Minnesota. "This is not a strategic politician. This is a movement conservative. She's a true believer."

Bachmann, 52, is a born-again Christian -- she has said God called her to go to law school and to run for Congress -- who cut her political teeth in the Minnesota Legislature pushing for an amendment to ban same-sex marriage. She won election to the U.S. Congress in 2006, going against the wave of Republicans forced out of office that year. Since then, she's concentrated more on tax and spending issues. She was in the spotlight this week as she questioned Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke during a hearing about federal intervention in the financial system.

Bachmann told FOXNews.com her ultimate goal in Congress is to overhaul and simplify the tax code, while fighting the efforts of the Obama administration to expand government and increase the tax burden. She said President Obama has gone on a spending "blitzkrieg," and she argued that the recent flap over AIG bonuses is just another sign that Washington needs an exit strategy for its financial intervention.

As for her re-election last year, she said it was just proof of her appeal.

"The fact that people knew that I am who I say I am and I'll vote the way that I vote and do so unapologetically, that's one thing people appreciate," she said. "You know, we're the state that voted in Jesse Ventura."

"The nation needs all the conservative fighters we can get in D.C.," she added.

Bachmann, while not exactly a household name, has built a national reputation over the past two years not on her economic positions, but through her off-the-cuff comments.

Last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she gave a shout-out to the Republican National Committee's first black chairman, Michael Steele, saying: "You be da man. You be da man."

It may have made viewers cringe, but it was hardly an unusual outburst to those who've watched Bachmann for years.

"She's defined herself by these incidents," said Blois Olson, a former Democratic operative in Minnesota who now works at the public affairs firm Tunheim Partners. "You will get an emotional reaction from anybody if you bring up her name."

Just ask Eva Young, who co-founded the colorful Web site Dump Bachmann, which serves as an online catalogue of Bachmann's porported fibs and flubs.

"She's a nut, she's a liar and she's a bigot -- and that summarizes her," Young said.

Young called Bachmann a "provocateur," pointing in particular to statements she's made about homosexuality.

Bachmann first earned attention in the state Senate for her campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage. She frequently warned about the grave consequences of gay marriage and was quoted calling it a threat to "Western civilization."

The campaign was riddled with peculiar incidents. Among them, Bachmann's lesbian stepsister showed up at the capital to speak out against the measure. Bachmann also reportedly had allies pray over the desks of lawmakers.

"This issue really defined her and got her statewide attention," said Monica Meyer, public policy director at gay advocacy group OutFront Minnesota, which opposed the amendment. But she said Bachmann's focus has drifted since.

"I'm not sure what her niche is yet," she said. "She comes off extreme in almost every issue she tries to talk about."

Another eyebrow-raiser came in a 2007 newspaper interview in which Bachmann talked about a plan to partition Iraq.

"Half of Iraq ... is going to be called the Iraq State of Islam, something like that. And I'm sorry, I don't have the official name, but it's meant to be the training ground for the terrorists," she said, according to an account in the Star Tribune. "They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone."

Bachmann later said she was "misconstrued."

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, Bachmann moment came last October when she appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" and, to some viewers, seemed to tap into the rhetoric of '50s communist hunter Joe McCarthy.

Asked by host Chris Matthews whether she believed then-candidate Barack Obama harbored anti-American views, Bachmann answered: "Absolutely. Absolutely ... I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views."

When pressed, she suggested that the media do a "penetrating expose" and take a look at members of Congress to find out, "Are they pro-America or anti-America?"

Bachmann's Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, enjoyed a surge of fundraising support -- many donations came from outside Minnesota -- after the show aired. A few weeks later, Bachmann had held on and won by 3 percent.

Political analysts pointed to a few factors that gave her the victory: First, Minnesotans have a soft spot for third-party candidates, and Independence candidate Bob Anderson took 10 percent of the vote -- drawing away from the anti-Bachmann sentiment that Tinklenberg would have enjoyed.

Second, Tinklenberg's surge in fundraising came too late in the game.

Lastly, Bachmann simply may have just been the right fit for her district -- she used the backlash from "Hardball" to accuse the media of misconstruing her statements.

It was, to some analysts, an affirmation of her political skill and the friendly landscape of her district.

"Having won that re-election ... I don't know she'll ever have a challenger of strength. She can probably hold that seat forever," said Bob Meek, a commentator who used to work for Minnesota political icons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

But Meek said he suspects Bachmann is looking to higher office in the near future.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is talked about as a potential GOP candidate for president in 2012, and he could step down in 2010 to concentrate on a national campaign and avoid a potentially bruising re-election fight in Minnesota.

If that happens, "I don't know why [Bachmann] wouldn't run for governor," Meek said.

Though Bachmann would surely draw stiff opposition from Democrats, Meek said she could forge a path to the state capital if there's a third-party candidate in the race to split the vote, as in her last re-election campaign.

Meek and others also suggested she might challenge Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Bachmann, though, said she would "fully anticipate" running for re-election to the House.

"I really like what I'm doing right now and it's early to say what I'm going to do," she said.

Asked about the possibility of a Bachmann run for governor or senator, Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey said it's not surprising that the congresswoman is earning buzz for higher office.

"Anybody's who's a strong political figure gets their name bantered around for higher office," he said. But he guessed Bachmann would stay in her House seat. "I think it's a little premature to jump to a conclusion that there's going to be an opening for her in 2010 there."

Carey said the criticism Bachmann draws from the left is merely a sign of her effectiveness, and that her base is unwavering. He recalled stopping by a meeting of campaign volunteers in her 2006 race -- held at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.

"There were 100 people there, ready to go out and do door-knocking for Michele Bachmann."

Carey gave her a pass for her sometimes agitating public comments.

"Anybody who is in the media day after day, occasionally they're going to say things that can be construed in a very unfavorable light. Look at the vice president," Carey said.

Bachmann sees herself as a "national spokesperson" for conservative ideas, Jacobs said. And he suggested that something bigger, and perhaps more profound, is at play in the whole Bachmann experience.

"The larger party infrastructure is about winning elections, and Michele Bachmann is about saving America," he said.

"Michele Bachmann is a microcosm of the tension between the Republican Party that wants to win elections and conservatives who want to fight and win policy battles. That is the core of it."