WASHINGTON - "If this is true, God loves Barack Obama!" someone commented on Twitter after Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told CBS she believes that God supports her decision to run for president. But, according to the polls, Bachmann, who has a stellar record in political races, has quickly closed the gap with her Republican rivals.
Bachmann, 55, was born to a Democratic family in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in a modest home with three brothers. The family moved to Minnesota, her parents divorced, and she and her brothers were supported by her mother's modest earnings as a bank worker. As a devout evangelical Christian, she came to Israel at the age of 17 after graduating from high school; she spent a summer as a volunteer at Kibbutz Be'eri on behalf of a Christian organization. She has since visited Israel several times. In a campaign video, she says that even back in her kibbutz days she realized Israel is the United States' most important strategic asset in the Middle East.
She studied law, and specialized in tax law. She volunteered in 1976 for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, which she and her future husband joined after they had met during their studies. But Carter's positions disappointed her deeply and she realized she was a Republican.
Bachmann has borne five children of her own, and over the years took 23 foster children into her home. She made a point of declaring her candidacy for president in her birthplace.
Iowa's caucuses in February will kick off the 2012 Republican race. Her entry into the fray - a charismatic, attractive and energetic woman, and mother of five - has invited inevitable comparisons to the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Is she a passing media sensation, or does she have a serious program?
Despite a number of slips of the tongue, it seems Bachmann is more resistant to criticism and does not hasten to lay the blame on the "lamestream media" (although Haaretz's requests for an interview have, to date, gone unanswered). Unlike Palin, who quit her job as governor of Alaska midterm, Bachmann has been consistent in establishing her political career. In the House of Representatives, where she is in her third term, she founded the caucus representing the Tea Party; she's one of its best-known faces.
In Iowa, an evangelical stronghold, she is nipping at the heels of the current leader in the Republican race, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. A recent poll for the Des Moines Register showed him with 23 percent of the Republican vote there, to Bachmann's 22 percent. The other Republican candidates lag far behind.
Palin's overexposure in 2008, when she came out of nowhere to become the Republican candidate for vice president, helped most Americans form an opinion about her. (According to a Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Republicans like Palin and 37 percent have negative feelings about her. )
Bachmann's relative anonymity is playing to her benefit at this stage. An Associated Press poll found that she had a 54 percent favorability rating, compared to Romney's 61 percent and Palin's 63 percent.
Bachmann's main problem is that her image is too extreme. A basic rule in the United States is that in primaries, a Republican should veer to the right to recruit conservative support. But in the general election, the candidate needs to go back to the center to court independent voters. Bachmann, already at the far right of the Republican spectrum, will have to move toward the center even in the primaries.
A few examples of her controversial positions: She has expressed doubts about the theory of evolution and has said the threat of global warming is "all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." She has said the high suicide rate among gay teens does not derive from discrimination and bullying but rather from "the fact of what they're doing." She has called on the media to investigate members of Congress, "to find out are they pro-America, or anti-America." In 2009, when America was facing a possible epidemic of swine flu, she observed: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." (In fact, an earlier epidemic broke out during Republican Gerald Ford's presidency, not under his successor, Carter. )
Bachmann has also called the Obama administration a "gangster government." She managed to get the Jewish community angry at her after she compared the mushrooming national debt and the loss of economic freedom to the loss of human life in the Holocaust. The National Jewish Democratic Council quickly condemned her, also criticizing her attempt to make Israel a point of contention between the Democrats and the Republicans.
In June, Bachmann's campaign uploaded onto the Internet a five-minute video on Israel. In it, she says America's "alliance with Israel is critical for both nations at all times." But she added that, "shockingly and frankly unforgivably, at this time of unprecedented flux and rising dangers, President Obama just told Israel that Israel has to give up its right to defensible borders in order to appease the Palestinians. That would be the same Palestinians who don't even recognize Israel's right to exist!" Obama's opinion is important because he's the president, said Bachmann, but it reflects a small minority of Americans, most of whom support Israel.
In speeches she has her share of embarrassing historical errors. For example, in New Hampshire, she said: "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord." Well, there is a Concord in New Hampshire, but the Lexington and Concord where the American Revolution broke out are in Massachusetts. In another speech, she praised America's founding fathers, saying they "worked tirelessly" to end slavery. But as any American schoolchild knows, even the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder and was slow to free his slaves.
Some of her colleagues in Congress have accused her of being a provocateur; her former chief of staff Ron Carey has said she is "decidedly" not ready for the presidency. But that's what they said about Obama.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now