Rep. Michele Bachmann could prove less troublesome for House Republicans, and even helpful, as she shifts her attention from Capitol Hill to running for president and to her opponents in the GOP primary.
Supporters said the outspoken Minnesota Republican, periodically engaged in public disagreements with party leaders, was moving Tuesday to accelerate the formation of her presidential campaign team. Bachmann's top political hand in Iowa, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, said in a telephone interview that he and a handful of deputies were free to begin assembling a statewide volunteer network — much of which had been waiting in the wings — now that the Congresswoman has filed her candidate papers.
"Michele will be able to perform well and will catch fire. It's just a matter of getting her message out," Sorenson said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill predicted Bachmann's presidential candidacy could cause them fewer political problems than if she had decided against a White House bid. However, some have expressed concerns that the GOP candidates may create false expectations among the party's base regarding what Republicans can accomplish controlling only the House.
"Her candidacy is great for us because she's going to be focused on the presidential campaign — and not us," a senior House Republican aide said.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a former House Member, said he does not expect Bachmann's campaign to create heartburn for Congressional Republicans, particularly because it is nearly impossible for the GOP to move an agenda beyond the Democratic Senate. Her presidential bid might even provide a boost, some Republican operatives argued.
"There will be plenty of times she likes what House Republicans are doing, and that will help us with the base," said one Republican campaign strategist with House clients.
Bachmann announced her candidacy Monday evening in New Hampshire, in the middle of the GOP presidential debate hosted by CNN. The Congresswoman received high marks from Republicans and political analysts — and not just because she exceeded low expectations. The often combative and confrontational Minnesotan came off as likable, knowledgeable and effective — elevating the stature of her three terms in the House.
For example, she presented herself as playing a major role in the defeat of the first vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. TARP is detested by tea party activists, who have worked to unseat Republicans who backed it to bail out Wall Street.
Bachmann is expected to be a strong candidate in the Iowa caucuses. She was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and raised in the Hawkeye State. And as a staunch social conservative, she offers an appealing political and personal profile to many Iowa Republicans. She made sure to point out during the debate that she is a mother and has been a foster parent to 23 children.
House Members typically fall short in the presidential nomination process, and it's unclear whether Bachmann can attract support beyond Iowa. Sorenson claims she can, asserting that the Congresswoman is the only candidate solid on constitutional, fiscal and social issues and capable of drawing votes from all wings of the Republican Party. Other Republicans closely following the race, including GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), suggested that Bachmann still has much to prove.
Ayotte said Bachmann performed well in the debate. But the freshman Senator, who won a contested primary of her own just last year, said it is "too early to tell" whether Bachmann will catch on with New Hampshire voters. Independents can vote in the Granite State primary, but Ayotte told reporters her advice to Bachmann would be to focus on registered Republicans.
"Obviously the excitement's going to be on the Republican end, so if an independent's going to pick up a ballot, they're going to pick it up in the Republican primary, so that's going to help get independents into the primary," Ayotte said. "But you still have to focus, in the primary in New Hampshire, on the registered Republicans. Having just come through a contested primary myself, where obviously we hoped that independents would still come out and vote for me, our strategy was still on the registered Republicans that you know are going to be the stalwart voters."
DeMint added that Bachmann can be competitive in South Carolina, which is dominated by social conservatives and national-security-minded Republicans. DeMint said he did not watch the debate.
"She's an impressive person; she's well-read," said DeMint, who is influential among some tea party conservatives. "She's a full-spectrum conservative. She's right in the right place on social issues, economic issues, defense issues. So, I think she's gong to be in the game."
Republican strategists are split on what Bachmann's strong first debate portends for her campaign.
One GOP operative, who worked for a 2008 candidate but is currently unaffiliated, said Bachmann performed well and that her personal charisma and strong appeal with conservative voters was on display. But this individual said her success and formal entrance into the race brings with it a scrutiny that could "magnify" her inexperience on the presidential stage and any mistakes she might make.
A second Republican operative said Bachmann's high marks are simply the result of incredibly low expectations for a politician known in Washington, D.C., as undisciplined and erratic. Bachmann is well-known on Capitol Hill for having trouble holding on to senior staff, although supporters say critics and the media have overblown those problems.
"Some pundits are saying she exceeded expectations. Well, they were pretty low," the operative said. "She is nothing more than Sarah Palin. The veneer will wear off when they scratch the surface a little more."