By Romano, Lois
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 07
Byline: Lois Romano
Why Michele Bachmann is riding high going into Iowa.
Barreling past Iowa's iconic cornfields aboard a blue campaign bus, Michele Bachmann tries to explain the uncanny political force that has catapulted her from a backbencher in Washington to a leading contender on the presidential trail. She has just finished electrifying a crowd in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, with a folksy assault on a bloated federal government that she and her Tea Party compatriots routinely vow to dismantle. "Obamacare" will be repealed in a Bachmann administration, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota vows. G-men won't tell you what lightbulbs you can use, either. And more of your hard-earned money will end up in your pocketbooks, not on the ledgers of mindless bureaucrats.
Such refrains have become all too familiar in Bachmann's other world back in Congress, thanks to the yearlong rise of the Tea Party that just brought Washington to a standstill and the nation to the brink of default. But in Iowa, Bachmann's simple, black-and-white distillations of complex problems are cheered as refreshing and tough. It's part of the reason she finds herself favored to finish near the top of the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13, the first political-strength test of the arduous 2012 presidential contest.
Petite and prim, the 55-year-old mother of five delivers her stump speech with the earnestness of a preacher. She pulls out a huge whiteboard and for dramatic effect scrawls just how many zeros can be found in a trillion.
The elderly, the unemployed, the exasperated, and even a few disillusioned Democrats crowd her rallies and cheer her not-going-to-take-it-anymore shtick, even as they recognize some of its inherent contradictions.
"You use the word 'anger.' It's not anger," Bachmann told NEWSWEEK. Americans aren't expressing "unhinged anger," she says. "People are saying the country is not working."
Married in 1979, Bachmann raised five children in Stillwater, Minn., and eventually fostered 23 kids. She has said her husband directed her to study tax law, and she obliged because "the Lord says: be submissive, wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands." Asked about her choice of words, she explains, "That means that I respect my husband, and he respects me." But in a Bachmann White House, she adds, "I would be the decision maker."
Just months ago, Bachmann was the butt of jokes on late-night TV for her flawed grasp of U.S. history. But all that changed one night this spring when she took the stage at the first major GOP presidential debate with the middle-aged, drab men running for the nomination, and set herself apart with poise and precision. When others meandered or waffled, she shot back with answers that reduced Washington's dysfunctional gridlock to understandable soundbites.
In Iowa, where she was raised, Bachmann has become the living embodiment of the Tea Party. She and her allies have been called a maniacal gang of knife-wielding ideologues. That's hyperbole, of course. But the principled rigidity of her position has created some challenges for her campaign.
One is overcoming the perception of hypocrisy. Democrats--and some of Bachmann's Republican opponents--have noted the gulf between her rhetoric and record. She earned a federal salary as a lawyer for the IRS (an agency despised by the Tea Party), for example. Pressed on whether she took Americans to court to force them to pay back taxes, she answers carefully. "Our employer was the United States Department of Treasury. That's who paid my salary," she says. "And the client that we represented was the IRS." She also says that the job opened her eyes to the "huge bureaucracy and how devastating high taxes are on almost every sector of the economy--farmers and families and small businesses and individuals."
Bachmann owned a stake in her father-in-law's farm that received more than $250,000 in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2008. …