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Bachmann well-positioned for Iowa, and maybe beyond

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
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Who is Rep. Michele Bachmann?
  • Bachmann is scheduled to launch her presidential bid formally on Monday
  • She has hired Sarah Palin's debate coach, nabbed Haley Barbour's pollster
  • Bachmann's staff challenge is to broaden her appeal beyond conservative activists

Washington (CNN) -- Forget political pedigree, executive experience or ties to deep-pocketed donors.

No Republican presidential candidate is better positioned to capitalize on the recent tide of conservative anger toward President Barack Obama than Michele Bachmann.

Her charisma and crossover appeal to both social and fiscal conservatives have the three-term Minnesota congresswoman rising in the polls and primed to make a serious impact on the GOP nomination fight.

Bachmann, unlike several of her rivals making appeals to the Tea Party movement, has the resources and fundraising potential to steer her campaign beyond the crucial early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Though firmly on the insurgent side of the Republican field, she is also taking steps to position herself as a credible alternative to the crop of establishment-friendly White House contenders with deep pockets and long political resumes.

She has hired Sarah Palin's debate coach. She nabbed Haley Barbour's pollster.

And Bachmann's campaign organization will be based not in Minnesota, but in Washington, where the coming battle on Capitol Hill over raising the debt ceiling will place her squarely in the middle of the national political debate this summer.

Most her rivals, now out of office, will be watching from the sidelines.

The question of whether Bachmann can ride these advantages all the way to the Republican nomination will begin to be answered on Monday in Iowa, where she formally launches her presidential bid in Waterloo.

That Bachmann was born in Waterloo and lived there until age 12 is fortuitous. Iowa, political observers say, is now key to Bachmann's chances of becoming president.

The bad news for Bachmann is that she has to win Iowa. Without it her campaign is over. The good news for Bachmann is that she can win Iowa.
--Curt Anderson, Republican strategist
Who is Rep. Michele Bachmann?
Bachmann: Obama a one-term president
Bachmann a 'no vote' on debt ceiling

"The bad news for Bachmann is that she has to win Iowa," said Republican strategist Curt Anderson, who is not aligned with any 2012 campaign. "Without it her campaign is over. The good news for Bachmann is that she can win Iowa."

That much is true. A Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend confirmed what many Iowa Republicans have been proclaiming for months: That barring a late entry into the race by a high-profile conservative like Palin or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Bachmann might be the Iowa frontrunner.

Bachmann captured the support of 22% of likely caucus-goers in the survey, putting her just one percentage point behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner who does not plan to compete as seriously in Iowa as he did during the 2008 race.

No other candidate came close to that level of support, including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- all candidates who, like Bachmann, are angling for support among Tea Party activists and social conservatives.

Strikingly, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has campaigned in Iowa for more than a year but has struggled to gain traction, took just 6%.

With her showing in the Register poll and an eye-opening performance in the New Hampshire Republican presidential debate earlier this month, the expectations for Bachmann in Iowa are climbing.

With little more than seven months until the caucuses, her staff must work to keep them in check.

"The expectations are rising for her," said Ed Brookover, one of Bachmann's closest advisers. "She has to meet or beat expectations, whatever those are next February."

While Bachmann's team smartly refuses to call Iowa a "must-win," they acknowledge that a strong showing in the caucuses is crucial for her campaign.

"The primary process is sort of like the NCAA tournament," Brookover said. "You have to survive and advance. That's what you have to do in these early states in order to do well. That's a long way of saying Iowa is pretty important for her."

Bachmann has yet to do the kind of face-to-face campaigning that Iowans demand, though that will quickly change as the campaign gets underway.

Meanwhile, her staff has been busy laying the groundwork for a competitive race.

Her congressional chief of staff, Andy Parrish, re-located to Des Moines in early June. Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a popular figure among Iowa Tea Party activists, will chair her campaign.

Wes Enos, the political director behind Mike Huckabee's surprising second place finish in the 2007 Ames Straw Poll, is taking on a similar role for Bachmann ahead of this year's poll, scheduled for August 13.

Out of the view of the media, there is also behind-the-scenes work underway to win over the kind of hard-to-reach grassroots activists who often play an outsized role in the caucuses.

Bachmann, for instance, has lined up the backing of influential home-school activist Barb Heki, a board member of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators who assisted Huckabee's winning caucus effort in 2008 and helped the conservative effort to oust three judges from the Iowa Supreme Court last year.

In private meetings in recent months, Bachmann has won over influential faith leaders across the state, including Brad Cranston, the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Burlington.

Cranston runs a group called "Iowa Baptists for Biblical Values," a loose network of pastors from around the state.

He recalled meeting with Santorum, Paul and Pawlenty early in the presidential process, but said that Bachmann was the only Republican who spoke convincingly about "the moral issues" that faith-minded voters in Iowa hold dear.

"Michele is what she claims to be," said Cranston, who manages an e-mail database of politically active churchgoers. "She will bring the conservative and Christian perspectives back to where they need to be. She will find a lot of support among religious conservatives in the state as things move forward. I think she has it already."

The challenge for Bachmann's staff if they hope to win more than just Iowa is to broaden her appeal beyond just the conservative activists who seem to have gravitated to her early.

Bachmann must defend a thin record during three terms in the Washington, where she is known more for her frequent cable news appearances than for any significant legislative achievement aside from creating the House Tea Party Caucus.

And, as aides to her Republican rivals like to point out, her tendency toward gaffes and conspiratorial claims about the president would be problematic, if not fatal, in a general election.

Bachmann seems to be aware of this fact, which is why she has assembled a team of veteran political operatives to manage her campaign.

She hired Ed Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election bid in 1984 and managed Huckabee's 2008 effort, to run her operation.

Along with loyal advisers like Brookover and fundraising consultant Guy Short, Bachmann has brought on top flight Republican talent like pollster Ed Goeas, who was working with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour before he declined to seek the nomination, and former George W. Bush and McCain message maven Brett O'Donnell, who coached Palin before her high-stakes vice presidential debate in 2008.

Also aiding Bachmann: veteran consultant Bob Heckman, who has deep ties to the conservative movement, former McCain campaign web guru Becki Donatelli, and Tom McGill, a fundraiser for President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 2008 bid.

When asked "Why Michele Bachmann?," a common theme emerges in discussions with her advisers, some of whom might have been comfortable working for a more traditional candidate like Pawlenty or Romney.

Their argument, as simple as it sounds, is that Bachmann is the only candidate in the field who truly understands the issues and impulses of the Republican voter at a very unconventional moment in American politics.

"After the first debate performance it was obvious that people responded to her in such an overwhelming way," said Rex Elsass, her Ohio-based media consultant. "There was a sense that finally someone was speaking to the heart and the core of the party."