Heartland Hearts and Minds: Why Iowa's Republicans Love Michele Bachmann

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

Michele Bachmann announces her candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, on June 27, 2011

As Iowans' scrutiny of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls intensifies, the rest of the country is now scrutinizing Iowans, asking in calls and e-mails: "Michele Bachmann. Really?"

"Friends and family around the country have asked about her specifically," says Becky Beach, a veteran Iowa GOP fundraiser who is uncommitted. "They're asking if I know her, what I think about her and why she's all of a sudden doing so well." Initially, out-of-staters wanted to know, "'What's going on out there? You cannot be serious,'" says Beach. Now they want to know, "What is it about her that people are taking her seriously?"

The not-always-flattering national spotlight on Bachmann — and Iowa — comes in the wake of the Iowa-born Minnesota Congresswoman's well-reviewed performance in a June 13 Republican debate in New Hampshire and her subsequent strong showing in several polls of likely voters in the nation's first presidential contest — the Iowa caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6. A Des Moines Register June 19–22 Iowa Poll, for example, showed Bachmann with 22%, 1 point behind top finisher Mitt Romney. This makes her "the presumptive favorite" in the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll, which is "the next significant winnowing," says Doug Gross, a top Romney supporter back in 2008, who remains uncommitted this time. "If she doesn't win it pretty significantly it will be seen as a negative," Gross says. "She is the only one who's sort of caught fire."

Romney's decision not to campaign aggressively in Iowa means his support will drop, says Gross, adding, "The key will be who takes Romney's support." Gross predicts Texas Governor Rick Perry will run and try attracting "more establishment" Republicans.

Bachmann is on Cynthia Latcham's short list. "She comes across as a very strong woman who has very strong belief systems," says Latcham, 44, of Des Moines, an evangelical Christian who particularly likes Bachmann's opposition to abortion, but other things too. "It's her ideas and then her personality," says the former social worker and stay-at-home mother who manages her husband's cardiology practice. "She's not going to accept any increases in the debt ceiling and not raise taxes. I love her position on life, and that she has been a foster parent to so many different kids is a huge grabber." Latcham warmed to Bachmann while waiting on Sarah Palin. Bachmann isn't "a Palin replacement," she says, but has a similar "charisma and way of communicating, just very commonsense intelligence."

Jody Wohlenhaus, 45, who lives in the countryside near Des Moines, is sold on Bachmann. "I'm tired of seeing people act like conservatives, get sent to Washington and just roll over. I don't think she'll do that," says Wohlenhaus, a "basic orthodox Christian," Tea Party admirer, rural Iowa native, community volunteer and parent married to a small-business owner. "Her entire world view lines up with mine, with reality — strong fiscal conservatism and strong social conservatism," says Wohlenhaus. This means "paring government back," "quit spending us into the grave," supporting "the sanctity of life" and "natural marriage — one man, one woman for life."

"If we don't win this next election, we're seriously going to become socialist Europe," Wohlenhaus says. "There are more people in the wagon than pulling it right now and civilization cannot endure when more people are depending on the government than on themselves."

That Bachmann — and Iowa — are being pilloried, including by late-night television comics who delight in Bachmann's gaffes, is "frustrating," says Wohlenhaus, but not unexpected, "because people who have lived in kind of a mainstream bubble don't understand conservative principles." She adds, "When you grow up in an agricultural setting, you see reality, what it takes to provide for your family, the hard work and also your reliance on God. It's an experience that's rare to get nowadays in industrialized modern America."

Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the Register's poll, was not surprised by Bachmann's strong showing, given the Congresswoman's Iowa roots, views and "freshness, firmness and conviction." The poll did reveal that Bachmann has "star power" and that "the people who like her, like her a lot — there's an intensity." Still, the race remains fluid, says Selzer, adding, "It's very early and we expect to see a lot of changes here."