Michele Bachmann: Crazy like a fox

The Minnesota congresswoman gives Sarah Palin a run for her money

But more importantly, many worry that those and similar remarks are detrimental to the national Republican Party's credibility, which is why not everyone inside the GOP is thrilled at the prospect of Bachmann becoming the face of their party. One senior Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, concedes that there's some trepidation within the GOP establishment.

"I can tell you she has a few quiet detractors within the Republican Party," says the strategist. "Put it this way: There've been some who've raised an eyebrow over the things she's said."

Nevertheless, GOP higher-ups have shown no effort to muzzle Bachmann, which suggests she fills an important role. Looking on the other side of the political aisle, the DFL, for all its squawking about Bachmann, has benefitted financially from her ravings as well.

"There are certainly people inside the DFL who think she's good for the party," says Jeremy Powers, a DFL chair in Bachmann's district. "Some think fighting for the Sixth District isn't worth it, because the sum advantage of having her around is better than ousting her."

It's a point DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez concedes but doesn't endorse.

"While obviously I like being able to raise money against Republican candidates, and while I like for there to be a convenient boogeyman like her, the price of having an ineffective representative for an entire congressional district is just too high."

ON A CRISP, CLOUDLESS EVENING in late September, about 2,000 conservatives gathered inside Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus to take part in a town hall meeting that, a year before, might have been the premise of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Here was Bachmann sharing the stage with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the controversial 2008 presidential candidate. Tonight's topic: the Federal Reserve's role in America's allegedly parasitic monetary policy.

Eager to align herself with Paul's grassroots, anti-Fed movement, Bachmann did her damndest to bring him to Minnesota. And now, wearing a pink overcoat and lipstick smile, she launched into her introductory speech.

"The foundation of all our conversations is liberty," she said, "and how we can give more liberty back into the hands of the people!"

Bachmann and Paul make strange bedfellows. In advocating a war against Iran, Bachmann once infamously claimed to know of a secret plan by Tehran to partition Iraq; Paul advocates not only withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also shutting down all American military bases across the globe. Bachmann is one of the most socially conservative members of Congress; Paul is constantly jabbering about keeping the government out of people's "lifestyles," which, to him, includes sexual orientation and drug use.

Marriages of convenience are commonplace in politics, but this one struck many as particularly counterintuitive. The Daily Beast dubbed it the "Craziest Town Hall Ever."

"What I think she's doing here is trying to broaden her base," says Schier, the Carleton professor. "There are a number of libertarian-style conservatives in that district who aren't reliably Republican, and she's trying to appeal to them. Whether she'll succeed remains to be seen, because there are some significant agenda differences at play."

You could see that chasm in the crowd assembled in the auditorium. At one point, a shaggy red-haired college student wearing a black anarcho-capitalist T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses plodded up the aisle. He stepped aside to let a family heading in the opposite direction through. They were clearly here to watch Bachmann—the mother had a three-by-five-foot Bachmann placard in tow.

But as Paul continued to fume onstage about the military-industrial complex and the folly of the Drug War—Bachmann sitting to the side politely clapping—some attendees, particularly those holding Bachmann signs, looked like they didn't know whether to cheer or mount a citizens' arrest.

The gathering served as a snapshot of a party at a crossroads. By the end of the night, you got the impression that no one, not even party stalwarts, knew where the hell the Republicans were going. But whatever the case, one also walked out with an inescapable suspicion that Bachmann might just factor prominently into the equation.

THE GENERAL CONSENSUS AMONG political observers is that the 2010 congressional elections will be favorable to the GOP. And the conventional wisdom holds that if Bachmann can survive the 2006 and 2008 bloodbaths, she can survive anything.

But there's reason for hope for the two DFLers challenging Bachmann. Money is flowing to her rivals in amounts that dwarf previous efforts. The challengers themselves both gamely describe themselves as moderate Democrats.

First we have Maureen Reed, a former internal-medicine doctor who plans to make health-care reform the defining issue of the campaign.

"What I disagree with most," she says of Bachmann, "is that she injects fear and anger into very complicated issues. People just don't problem-solve well when they're fearful and angry."

In the other corner you have state Sen. Tarryl Clark, a DFL up-and-comer who, by virtue of having nabbed labor union endorsements, appears to be the frontrunner. Like Reed, she might be handicapped by an overreliance on wonky pragmatism in a district that seems to perennially reward folksy pathos.

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