Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota Clipper

Though not yet a candidate, Michele Bachmann is upending a stodgy GOP field. Why she's for real

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By the time Michele Bachmann bounded up onstage — 5 ft. 2 in. tall, full of fire and bellowing, "There's no place like Iowa!" — the faithful at the Des Moines Marriott appeared ready for something different. The conservative crowd had sat for almost four hours, watching Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour open with a joke Conrad Hilton supposedly told on The Ed Sullivan Show a half-century ago. They heard Newt Gingrich propose using the Internet to solicit ideas for new Executive Orders. But then came Bachmann, a Minnesota Congresswoman who whipped up the crowd like a football coach at a pregame rally. "I'm in," she shouted. "You're in. We will take this back in 2012!"

For the most part, the start of the next presidential campaign has generated as much excitement as the drop of a wet towel. The likely GOP field is a collection of current and former governors and some party fixtures, all of whom seem determined to tiptoe their way to the nomination without breaking a sweat. Other GOP luminaries, such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, appear hesitant to run.

But Bachmann has barreled into the dead calm, keeping a rigorous schedule in Iowa and New Hampshire, adding what Iowa Representative Steve King calls an "electric" jolt. In Des Moines, Bachmann flashed big numbers on the huge video screens to her left and right: 75%, what she claimed to be the four-year rise in the national debt ("Hu is your daddy," she said of the Chinese President); 3.8 million, the number of words in the tax code ("Happy reading," she said); $1.83, the price of a gallon of gasoline the day before Barack Obama took office. "Is it time for a change?" she prodded, and hundreds roared back. "Absolutely it's time for a change."

Bachmann knows how to seize the moment. In six short years, she has risen from anonymous newcomer to become a national GOP leader who rivals Palin in star power. The skills and views that make her a hero to many conservatives have turned her into a favorite target of liberals who flinch at her inflammatory rhetoric and factual flubs. Gallup found that 24% of Republicans have a "strongly favorable" view of Bachmann, third behind Huckabee and Palin. In the 2010 election cycle, she raised $13.5 million, more in a two-year period than any other U.S. Representative in history, tapping a network of 160,000 donors.

In January, when she announced exploratory visits to early-primary states, most saw the move as a publicity play, and rival campaigns barely paid it any mind. But she has since begun to seek pledges from Republican and Tea Party leaders for a possible campaign launch by June. "There is a vacuum out there for a combination Tea Party and social-conservative candidate," says Ed Brookover, her longtime political consultant. Speaking with TIME in Washington March 30, Bachmann said her decision to run has been a gradual one. "I can't tell you that there was a moment. I think increasingly, watching the Obama policies has been what galvanized my thinking."

Bachmann, who turns 55 on April 6, would start with a big advantage in Iowa, where she was born and where her brand of fiscal and social conservatism runs as deep in some circles as the state's storied topsoil. She is a former charter-school activist and tax attorney, a crusader against gay marriage, and the mother of five who has cared for 23 teenage foster children while operating a Christian counseling company with her husband. She is bold and plainspoken and may turn out to be the only female in the Republican field. "There are a lot of ways she could do well in the Iowa caucuses," says J. Ann Selzer, the state's respected pollster. "She looks like change, and this is potentially a good year for that."

Bachmann does not have to win Iowa to disrupt the GOP race. Simply by depriving other candidates of votes in the first contest, she could play a decisive role in culling the field. But in any case, a win in Iowa wouldn't guarantee her an easy march to the nomination. Bachmann's incendiary style could turn off voters down the road. In the past, she has joked inaccurately about the "coincidence" that swine flu emerged during the Carter and Obama presidencies, fretted publicly that Obama might have "anti-American" sentiments and decried what she calls the "gangster government" in the U.S. "People have to draw the conclusion that they can definitely see her as President of the United States," says Bob Vander Plaats, a kingmaker in the Iowa GOP. "She will not be the nominee," predicted one strategist with a rival campaign. "Maybe a nice diversion for a while."

Bachmann may also have trouble building a complex campaign operation. She has burned through four chiefs of staff in five years, often preferring her own counsel or that of her close-knit family. She writes her own speeches and relies heavily on her husband and her oldest son, a Connecticut doctor, for advice. Such an arrangement usually makes for a rocky crusade. Ron Carey, a former Minnesota party chair who quit as her chief of staff last summer, says he will not support Bachmann despite their long friendship. "I agree with Michele Bachmann 99% of the time on policy issues," he says. "But just like Dorothy, I've been to Oz and I've looked behind the curtain." Such nay-saying has never given Bachmann much pause, however. By all appearances, she is just getting started. — With reporting by Katy Steinmetz / Washington