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The Battle from Waterloo

by Robert Costa

Representative Bachmann runs for president

Waterloo, Iowa — Near the cornfields, her parents danced. On hot summer nights in the Sixties, when things were good and the kids were young, David and Jean Amble would shimmy to the music of Ray Charles and Bill Haley at the Electric Park Ballroom. Down the road, their headstrong daughter, Michele, would order ice-cream cones for her three brothers at Jensen’s Dairy Queen, two blocks from the family’s working-class home.

The day before she announced her presidential campaign in late June, the former Michele Amble, now Representative Bachmann of Minnesota, returned to her childhood haunts. She was pleased to see that the Dairy Queen was bustling, with a line of cars at its drive-through window. The house on East Ninth Street, where she lived until she was twelve years old, was there too, but its porch now sloped in disrepair, its brown paint peeling.

Bachmann soaked up the nostalgia. She stopped by First Lutheran, her family church, then visited East High School, not far from the rumbling Cedar River. Everywhere she went, she met old friends and neighbors. Four decades after she left, much had changed, but the ghosts and good memories remained. Even though fast-food chains and a 24-hour Walmart nested nearby, this was the America she knew. Before she moved away, before her parents divorced, before everything, this was home.

As Bachmann drove at sunset to Electric Park, where hundreds of supporters packed the dusty dance floor, it clicked: This town was not some one-day backdrop for the campaign, but the heart of her message. More than any policy, more than any slogan, she would be Waterloo. As she burst through the ballroom doors, her petite frame twirling from handshake to handshake, her adrenaline surged.

Forget the notes, Bachmann thought as she spied rows of reporters leaning against the wall, their Flip cameras and notepads ready. She would extemporaneously celebrate her roots, using them to paint a picture of the America she hopes to lead. She knew that to some she might sound like a Norman Rockwell enthusiast, more June Cleaver than Margaret Thatcher, but with millions of Americans out of work and remembering better times, she would connect.

Up on stage, in her high-pitched midwestern voice, which stretches the letter “O” for seconds, Bachmann made a simple case. “This is what we need more of — we need more Waterloo,” she said. “We need more Iowa. We need more closeness, more families, more love for each other, more concern about each other.” She paused as the roar grew. “It is not too late,” she said, beaming under the Klieg lights. “Hallelujah!” shouted the gentleman beside me.

Bachmann’s raucous homecoming was the latest in a series of strong performances by the Minnesota Republican, who only recently announced that she would seek the presidency. While big-name contenders, such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, have been running hard for months, Bachmann waited until the summer to pounce. Since launching her effort, she has rocketed into contention, especially in Iowa, where she hopes to make a splash later this summer in the Ames Straw Poll, an important prelude to the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The latest Des Moines Register poll of GOP caucus-goers shows Bachmann in a dead heat with Romney, trailing the former Massachusetts governor by one point, 23 percent to 22 percent. Pawlenty, her longtime competitor for the Minnesota spotlight, has struggled to catch fire, with barely 6 percent support. The rest of the field is gasping for oxygen.

To Beltway Republicans, Bachmannmania has been a sudden though not entirely surprising development. “She has very good instincts about what matters to core Republicans, and she also believes it,” says Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman. “She is not cowed by the attacks on her by the liberal media and the elite. Plus, on talk radio, on Facebook, and on Twitter, she has a real presence.” For 2012, he says, that matters.

Indeed, the notion that an ambitious, contentious House member could never stand a chance against more experienced national Republicans has been discarded by most political operatives, many of whom are impressed by Bachmann’s fundraising prowess. Last year, she raised more than $13.5 million for her reelection. She is also a cable-news star, whether she is battling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Hardball or detailing the horrors of Obamacare with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Yet in a few quiet minutes before her hometown tour, Bachmann told me that her quick rise into the top tier of the GOP primary can be attributed to more than political celebrity. She argues that it is due to her ability to connect the tea-party movement to the broader economic and social themes that are shaping this election. “I have been able to reach out to people who have never been political a day in their life,” she said. “From disaffected Democrats to independents, they have seen what President Obama has done to devastate our economy.”

At first, this rings off-key. Bachmann, perhaps more than any House member, is identified as a leader of hardline conservatives on Capitol Hill. She chairs the Tea Party Caucus and constantly tangles with GOP leadership. For her to talk about her appeal to the center, about her ability to attract independents, sounds strange. But as our conversation continues, and she talks about her political education, it emerges that this tea-party darling is also a complicated and canny mother, activist, and educator — one who has a history with Jimmy Carter.

Marcus Bachmann, Michele’s husband of 33 years, immediately knew that she was different. In the spring of 1976, when they were both sophomores at Winona State University in southeastern Minnesota, he spotted her across the playground at an elementary school near campus, where they supervised recess and youth sports. They were both (barely) paying their way through school and jumped at the chance to make a few dollars.

“Every day, we walked from the elementary school back to the college,” Marcus tells me. On those strolls, they opened up to each other. “Michele was interested in intellectual, philosophical, and political conversations,” he says. The summer after she graduated from high school in Anoka, Minn., she had worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and she fascinated him with her stories.

The pair became fast friends, and soon the relationship blossomed beyond the schoolyard. That summer, they worked together on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. Both were pleased that Walter Mondale, Minnesota’s favorite son, was chosen to be the Georgia Democrat’s vice-presidential nominee. “By that time we were dating,” Michele says. “Jimmy Carter, to us, seemed to be a likable candidate. He was a born-again Christian.”

After Carter topped President Ford at the polls that November, Marcus surprised Michele with two tickets to the inauguration in Washington. “Neither one of us had ever been to Washington before,” she says. “He told me that it’d cost $100, and I said ‘No way,’ since I would not put 25 cents in a soda machine. But we went, and we danced at an inaugural ball.”

For Bachmann, the experience was a thrill, especially seeing the Capitol dome for the first time, a sight that moved her to tears. But that was her last dance with Democratic politics. By the spring of 1978, their senior year, she and Marcus were planning a post-graduation fall wedding. Their affection for Carter was evaporating. They talked about how he was aimless on foreign policy and a blubbering mess on social policy, his supposed strength.

A key moment in their political development came that spring when they both attended a campus screening of the Francis Schaeffer film How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. “The message encouraged our beliefs that life is precious,” Marcus tells me, reflecting on how the evangelical thinker influenced them.

Michele agrees. From that moment, her pro-life and pro-family values began to crystallize into a firm political worldview. After years of seeing politics as partisan scraps, Bachmann began to notice a difference between the Democrats she grew up with in Waterloo and the monolithic Left running Jimmy Carter’s Washington.

The final straw came on a train ride back home one evening in the late Seventies. Bachmann was reading Gore Vidal’s Burr, a historical novel. When she realized that passage after passage was mocking the founding fathers, she threw the book down, disgusted with how the liberal writer described her heroes.

“I was offended,” she says. “When I grew up in a Democratic family, we were respectful of the founders, we were very patriotic, we loved the country, and we were reasonable, fair-minded Democrats, like many of them are. I put the book down, looked out the window, and thought that this is not what I recall growing up. I thought, I must not be a Democrat, I must really be a Republican.”

A couple years later, in 1980, both Bachmanns backed Ronald Reagan. Politics, however, took a backseat in her life for the next decade as she paid her way through Oral Roberts Law School, which at the time was known as O. W. Coburn and was a Bible-based institution. The couple then lived in Virginia while she earned a master’s in tax law from William and Mary.

Marcus simultaneously earned his master’s degree in educational counseling from Regent University in Virginia Beach. The young couple also began their family of five children, starting with Lucas, who would later become a medical student, an avid follower of William F. Buckley Jr., and, currently, one of his mother’s most trusted advisers.

Eventually, the family settled in Stillwater, Minn., where Marcus opened Christian counseling centers, which he continues to run today. Michele, for a few years, worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a lawyer. (On the campaign trail, she cleverly calls herself a “federal tax attorney.”) In her spare time, she assisted with the family business. As the children grew, she slowed her legal activity, and most of her work took place inside the family’s home — as an educator.

With a group of parents, Bachmann founded New Heights, a charter school, in 1992. The experience — dealing with state government, stirring neighbors to get involved — taught her much about organizing and, for the first time, how to deal with the media. But after butting heads with some parents about the curriculum, Bachmann, a board member, resigned.

She turned her full attention back to her children. The Bachmanns homeschooled all five of them, teaching them to read and write before the state would even have started with them. National Review, Time, Newsweek, and local newspapers were required reading for the brood. Rush Limbaugh played over the radio on many afternoons, along with Michele’s favorite composer, J. S. Bach.

By the mid-Nineties, Marcus and Michele were welcoming foster children into their home. It began with one, then another. By 1998, 23 teenage girls had lived with them at different junctures. It was at times a challenge, but always a labor of love. Some of Bachmann’s own children remember long lines for the bathroom, but, beyond that minor snag, they are in awe of their parents, especially their mother, for her boundless energy.

“Our adolescent foster children came to us as the last stop in the foster-care system,” Marcus says. He and Michele were determined to make sure that they were not lost in the system, just another name in a state worker’s manila folder. “When our foster children were older teens, I had the rule that summer was not for idleness. From 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, they either found employment or volunteered.” The disciplined guidance, he says, worked: Each of their foster children graduated from high school.

Bachmann, one of her sons recalls, never seemed to rest. Her professional legal work and her never-ending efforts as an educator of her children did not stop her from becoming involved in conservative causes. She would attend pro-life meetings whenever possible and take her children to see conservative speakers at local college campuses.

During Bill Clinton’s second term, Bachmann decided to speak out beyond the neighborhood coffee klatch. The Left’s heavy influence over the state’s public schools, which enabled bureaucrats to craft shoddy, politically correct classroom material, motivated her to join the Maple River Education Coalition, a group of parents and community members who, like her, were upset with the quality of public-school education.

Bachmann’s cries for education reform were soon heard around Minnesota as she and her allies campaigned against the St. Paul progressives. “I put together a two-hour commentary and went everywhere,” she says. “We talked about the curriculum being dumbed down and about how this is devastating for our kids.”

Her charisma and denunciations generated buzz in Stillwater. In 1999, she took her first step into electoral politics, running for a seat on the local school board. But it was not to be. She and a slate of her conservative friends mounted bids. All of them lost. “We had no idea about politics,” she chuckles. Bachmann shrugged off the defeat, looking for other ways to contribute.

A year later, lightning struck when she decided at the last minute to attend the state GOP convention, where many of her allies from the educational fights had congregated, trying to nominate conservative, pro-reform candidates. As Bachmann tells it, she was not even planning to attend, but was there for a wedding.

“I told Marcus that I felt like I should go, since I was in the area, and asked if I could skip the wedding. He said sure, so I put on jeans, moccasins, and a sweatshirt with a hole in it,” she says. She met up with her friends. As the afternoon unfolded, no one seemed to be interested in challenging Gary Laidig, her district’s longtime incumbent state senator and a moderate Republican.

Bachmann, without consulting her family, was prompted by a friend to put her name in for consideration. The GOP staffers were shocked when she walked up to the front and filed papers on a whim. “I was thinking that maybe if I ran, and we could get a discussion going on our issues, then it would be worth it,” she says. Winning, it seemed, was almost out of the question. She felt she was doing her duty as an activist and a mother.

After she signed her name on the dotted line, Bachmann thought she could return to her pack of friends in the back of the hall. No, no, said one of the party operatives, you must give a five-minute speech if you want to be an official candidate. “I got up there and delivered a speech about freedom,” she says. “I spoke about how it relates to the cause of life, taxes, and education.” Laidig watched all of this from afar. He was up next.

It was already over. Bachmann won the nomination on the first round of votes. When she returned home as a state-senate candidate, she says, Marcus had no idea about the turn of events. “I was hiding upstairs in our bedroom. The phone kept ringing and he came upstairs. He gave me that look and said that there is something you need to tell me.” She told him the news. “You know, he told me, you can’t take this back.”

She didn’t. “I was the accidental politician,” Bachmann says of winning at the nominating convention. “We laughed that our campaign slogan would be ‘We know nothing, and we can prove it.’ Gradually, we began to build a team when the senator got back in to run in the primary. Our kitchen table was piled with mailers, and I worked extremely hard. I ended up winning the primary 61 percent to 39 percent — it was a huge shock in state politics.” She then swept the general election.

In the legislature, Bachmann established herself as a leading social conservative. On life and marriage issues, no one was more vocal. Not everyone liked her combative style. She was the opposite of a backbench rookie and eschewed learning the ropes. When she started, she took the reins, with vigor, on her issues — without asking permission.

Minnesota pols tried to shoo her out of office during the 2002 redistricting process, unsuccessfully, and when Mark Kennedy, her area’s Republican congressman, decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Bachmann knew that it was time to take the fight to Washington.

“In the general election, she went up against Patty Wetterling, a high-profile advocate for abused children,” says Brad Biers, one of her first campaign staffers. The Mark Foley scandal, he says, in which the Florida Republican was accused of inappropriate interactions with congressional pages, was a real burden for Bachmann as she ran. National Democrats ladled cash into Wetterling’s coffers, hoping to pick up a ruby-red seat.

 “She was a natural at connecting with the grassroots,” Biers says, “but the transition from being a legislator and figuring out how to run for a major office, that part had a major learning curve. In many ways, she was raw around the edges.”

To her relief, Bachmann was boosted in the final weeks by her fervent conservative supporters, whose enthusiasm never seemed to wane. After years of speaking at sparsely attended GOP functions and joining mothers and local pastors for coffees and conversation, she found the district’s suburban, evangelical community to be more than a circle of friends — it was a political bloc. Wetterling faded by Election Day and Bachmann won, 50 percent to 42 percent. Washington had no idea what was coming.

To understand Michele Bachmann, congresswoman, you have to understand how she handles herself behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, says Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican and one of her closest allies. In two such venues, he says, the House GOP conferences and the congressional prayer group, she is a dynamic, inspiring figure. During the weekly party confabs, where House Speaker John Boehner opens the floor for off-the-record dissent, Bachmann does not pull punches. At the prayer group, she is the warmest of friends.

That sweet-and-sour combination is unique in the Republican conference. Most Republicans keep quiet during the conference meetings, wary of irking the leadership. Others rarely, if ever, spend time with their colleagues deep in prayer. Bachmann garners respect for this reason, even from those who do not much care for her. She is seen as a spoiler, to be sure, but also as well-intentioned and powerful with conservative constituencies. When Bachmann opposed the 2008 bank bailouts and Boehner’s April 2011 spending deal with Obama, she gave the leadership heartburn. She is doing it again this summer with her nonstop push against raising the debt ceiling.

But it is Bachmann’s Obama barbs, more than anything, that have made her a nationally known name. In October 2008, she appeared on MSNBC and told Chris Matthews that Obama may hold “anti-American views.” Her remarks set off a firestorm. Many in the GOP establishment became skeptical of her approach. Online and at rallies, however, there were murmurs of agreement, and a stream of small donations began to flow into to her campaign. That fundraising faucet — $50 here, $100 there — has not been shut off since, and neither has she.

Her propensity to play with fire has nearly ended her congressional career. In 2008, days after she appeared on Hardball, Bachmann began to sink in the polls. The Cook Political Report flipped the district from “Leans Republican” to “Toss Up.” One of her senior advisers at the time remembers her “really fearing that she could lose, that it really might be ending.” As brash as she was in public, behind the scenes she was no fantasist, and kept close watch of the polls. In the event, she won by three points — a five-point drop from her 2006 margin.

Instead of pulling back, Bachmann doubled down on anti-Obama rhetoric. And there are concerns about more than her words. Bachmann’s congressional office is constantly in flux. She has had six chiefs of staff in her short congressional career, and a bushel of press secretaries. Former staffers tell me that she is demanding, press-obsessed, and a scheduler’s nightmare. She also reportedly rarely listens to her paid advisers, instead relying on her husband and her son Lucas to help her navigate the political waters.

“It was impossible,” says one former Bachmann aide. “You either get out of her way or you get out of the picture. She does not take disagreement well, and that was fine — that’s not unusual in Washington. But she would never listen; she was impulsive. There was a lot of passion, and that was great, but that was the only part of it that was great.”

The most damning criticism of Bachmann on the Hill, whispered by conservative staffers, is that the House GOP does not have its best face in the presidential field. Bachmann, says one senior GOP aide, is more sales than manufacturing. “I can’t think of one bill that she has crafted and passed,” he says. Another chortles that her record is a series of television hits. Bachmann’s friends contend that she has attempted to do more, only to be blocked.

When others urged her to sit on the sidelines after the 2010 midterms, she ran for a leadership slot, GOP conference chair, against Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas fiscal hawk. She dropped her bid before the votes were tallied, but her supporters were miffed at how she was largely ignored by party leaders. One leadership aide, in a conversation earlier this month, threw cold water on that claim. “There was no move to push her out,” he says. “That’s not how this works. She just never had the votes — period.”

That loss forced Bachmann to grapple with her political future. At 55 years of age, nowhere near a committee chairmanship, and not ensconced in the leadership, she needed to find a way to do more than crow on the cable airwaves. She was not interested in running for Senate, and though she enjoyed her new post on the Intelligence Committee — assigned after she lost her leadership race — it did not satiate her thirst for the national stage and her hope to lead the fight against Obama.

This spring, Bachmann began to seriously think about running for president. She traveled around the country giving speeches, road-testing herself. It was not an entirely smooth endeavor — the gaffes were embarrassing, setting off a string of giggle-giggle stories on the political blogs. In New Hampshire in March, she told local Republicans that they were from the state “where the shot was heard around the world at Lexington and Concord.” (The first shot in the Revolutionary War, as we know, was fired in neighboring Massachusetts.)

If the incident had been an isolated slip, it probably would have been forgotten. But Bachmann had made verbal stumbles before, such as saying that the founding fathers played an integral role in abolishing slavery.

Her saving grace may be her sense of humor. After the Concord remark, Bachmann took to Facebook to discuss the flub with her supporters. “It was my mistake,” she wrote. “Massachusetts is where they happened. New Hampshire is where they are still proud of it!” Since then, the 24-hour story, which set politicos abuzz for a bit, has mostly become part of the background noise of her campaign, nothing more.

Bachmann is the first to acknowledge that she has been an imperfect politician. But when it really counts, she says, when she has to perform, she burns the midnight oil.

Prior to the June 13 debate on CNN, Bachmann’s first as a likely presidential candidate, she holed up in her home on Johnson Drive. She kept a light schedule, avoiding the press, shelving her BlackBerry. The kitchen, for years the family’s Grand Central Terminal, suddenly was quiet, part library, part war room. On the table sat a binder, chock full of policy briefs. In the chairs sat her prep team, including forensic guru Brett O’Donnell, who has advised Sarah Palin in the podium arts. For a week, Bachmann pored over the book, ordering in Mexican food — her favorite — when necessary. Supreme Court cases were discussed, and so was her record. O’Donnell pulled out dusty videotapes from past congressional races, polishing away tics and mannerisms.

On Monday night, Bachmann arrived at Saint Anselm College, a liberal-arts school, with a small entourage of aides, family, and friends. Once outside the green room, alone on CNN’s makeshift dais, she roamed, eyeing the stars and stripes etched onto the set. She placed her hands on the podium, shifted her shoulders, and exhaled. As the cameras went live, she prayed with her hands clasped, her mouth closed. Only Marcus, watching from afar, could tell.

Within seconds, moderator John King, a silver-haired smoothie, cut to her. “Hi, my name is Michele Bachmann,” she said, her white teeth gleaming. “I am a former federal tax-litigation attorney. I am a businesswoman. We started our own successful company.” The rest of her story came out in bursts: congresswoman, wife, mother, foster parent. The crowd cheered.

To ensure that she would make headlines at the debate, regardless of how things unfolded, Bachmann had decided to reveal some news in her first response, announcing that she had officially filed papers to run — a side dish to what turned out to be a strong performance.

On question after question, Bachmann kept her voice even, her answers focused. She talked up her efforts to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law; she underscored her opposition to abortion. She also looked like a star — and not the Beltway type. On a stage full of stiff suits, she popped.

Back in Waterloo in late June, Bachmann continues to wow Republicans with her easy manner, her pointed attacks on Obama, and her up-from-Iowa story. Her kick-off rally was a winner. More important, her path to the nomination, though still difficult, is looking clearer by the day.

Pawlenty is flailing. Romney is a machine — tough, precise, but no heart. Herman Cain, a popular black businessman and tea-party leader, could potentially cut into her base, but at the CNN debate and elsewhere, he too has found it hard to compete with her brash, in-the-arena message. Rick Perry, the Texas governor who may jump in, could receive the same reception in Tea Party Land. You can compete, but, unless you are named Sarah Palin, you may never enjoy Bachmann-level adoration.

Longtime GOP observers tip their hats to her crackling start but are taking a wait-and-see approach before they proclaim her the nominee. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, says that her debate performance showed the Left that she is for real. “They thought of her as a talking head,” he says. “They were not ready for her to speak in whole paragraphs.” That said, “it is very tough to run for president from a House seat, but she is certainly making a good impression.”

On the timber front, Bachmann’s staff, long a problem in the House, appears to be stable, at least for the moment. She has hired hands from Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. Huckabee, a preacher and former Arkansas governor, won the caucuses last cycle, and his staffers know how to navigate the state’s 99 counties. Still, things could get wild. Former Reagan adviser Ed Rollins, who managed Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign and Huckabee ’08, is on board to helm the ship. He is a major name — and one Bachmann wooed for months — but is a longtime, ever-swirling political tornado who loves to knocks rivals, the press, you name it.

But all of that — the inside baseball of presidential politics — is the sideshow, Bachmann tells me. She is running to change the country, not to make headlines or score a cable-news show. “I know what this will take,” she says. “We need someone with a titanium spine who will stand up and repeal Obamacare and turn this economy around.”

Bachmann hopes her campaign will be a magnet for people of all political stripes, whether they are fed up with Obama or with the GOP presidential field’s tired talking points. She is a face familiar to activists, but the rest of the country is just tuning in. At this point, she says, what seemed implausible after losing her leadership race — standing a real chance of contending for the GOP presidential nomination — appears possible. If you’re lucky, you end up on the ticket. More likely, Bachmann could run for reelection and remain a player in the House.

Bachmann swats away talk of contingency plans. “I believe Obama is highly vulnerable, that he will be a one-term president,” she says. “I will bring the resolve and the guts we need to have in the White House so that the United States can remain the indispensable nation of the world.”

If things break her way, Bachmann could be that leader. Her early stops on the trail have the energy and crowds that the so-called frontrunners rarely see, and most of them have been running for months. Her activist background, her motherly instinct, all of it makes for potent, visceral political appeal.

And don’t think for a minute that she is not serious. A few hours after our chat, as she exits the Electric Park Ballroom, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” blasts. The speakers are rocking, the crowd is ecstatic. Bachmann is swarmed. She keeps her chin up, her smile wide. Marcus shadows her as she poses for pictures and kisses infants. The deejay turns up the volume. Bachmann, with a quick glance, eyes me in the corner. She nods.

Her look says it all: She intends to win.

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