Say what you will about Michele Bachmann, but don’t deny that she is the most theatrically skilled Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
During a debate that did nothing to discourage the prospective campaigns of Republicans who were not on the stage— former Utah Governor John Huntsman, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and, above all, Texas Governor Rick Perry—Bachmann was the one candidate who made news.
At the opening of the second Republican presidential debate Monday night, Bachmann took an unprecedented step: she announced that she had formally entered the race for the GOP nomination—a move that just a few months ago was unimaginable to almost anyone but the congresswoman from Minnesota.
Yes, it was a little bizarre. Most candidates get the family together, call in a crowd of supporters and deliver a rip-roaring address that scopes out a vision for the country. Bachmann says she’s jump through those hoops “soon.”
But rather than wait, Bachmann just told John King that she was ready to make the race.
It was a stunt.
But there’s a reason why politicians—especially politicians mounting uphill runs—pull stunts.
They grab attention, make voters take a second look and jumpstart a campaign.
That’s what Bachmann was doing, with her start-of-the-debate announcement and every answer she gave on a night that saw the men who would be president struggle to excite a friendly crowd.
“Michele Bachmann was introduced to the country for the first time and she did a very good job of it,” said veteran Republican operative (and Bush family retainer) Andy Card, who described the Minnesota congresswoman’s performance as polished, professional and powerful.
“It turns out Bachmann does a better job of being [Sarah] Palin than Palin does,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, referencing the former governor of Alaska who can still make headlines but whose place in the Republican race may yet be occupied by Bachmann.
The congresswoman has had her own stumbles over the years. But she wasn’t stumbling Monday night.
More electric than the agonizingly drab also-rans (former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum), more on top of the issues than the other Tea Party favorite (pizza CEO Herman Cain), punchier than the serious libertarian (Texas Congressman Ron “Reserve Currency” Paul) or the know-it-all professor (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) it was Bachmann who most effectively held her own in competition with the smooth and relatively presidential frontrunner (Mitt Romney).
Romney had a decent night. Despite prompting from moderator John King. Pawlenty skipped a chance to press his “Obamneycare” comparison of President Obama’s health-care reform legislation and the reform plan Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts. And Santorum, who has tried to make himself the race’s social conservative purist, went easy on Romney’s switch from a pro-choice to an anti-choice stance regarding abortion.
Romney even had some applause lines—especially his announcement that the Boston Bruins were “up 4-1.”
But Bachmann had an applause line for every question. Bachmann hailed herself as a “principle ahead of party” conservative who fought “behind closed doors” to block bailouts of banks and corporations.
“The president deferred leadership in Libya to France,” she announced. “That’s all you need to know.”
“I am 100 percent prolife,” she announced, before outlining her opposition to abortion even in instances of rape and where the life of a mother might be threatened. “I stand for life from conception to natural death,”
She promised “the mother of all repeal bills,” praising proposals to start shutting down federal agencies, including apparently the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Republicans have an awesome story to tell,” she chirped early in the evening.
“We’re going to win!” a beaming Bachmann declared. “I want to announce tonight: President Obama is a one-term president,. We’re going to win.”
The crowd went wild.
So is Bachmann going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2012?
Not likely. She’s got a record of unsettling votes and even more unsettling statements that will haunt her. She’s the most inconsistent constitutionalist in Congress—hailing privacy rights while voting to extend the most abusive components of the Patriot Act. And she does not poll any better than does former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in one-on-one pairings with President Obama.
But it does mean that this newly minted candidate is going to grab a lot of the limelght from the other candidates and generate more headlines than any contender save Romney—who maintained his frontrunner status Monday night at least in part because Bachmann left little room for Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty or Santorum to get traction.
Nobody “won” Monday night’s debate, which was good for Romney.
But Bachmann scored points. That’s good for her. And maybe for the as-yet-unannounced Republican contender who could combine Romney’s “stature” and political skills with the congresswoman’s applause lines.
Indeed, if there is anyone who can remind Republicans that they have an enthusiasm gap to fill, it is Bachmann. Unfortunately for her—though fortunately for her party and the country—she is not going to be the candidate who fills it.