The hot new question in the Republican primary is whether Rep. Michele Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman who has rapidly leapfrogged from legislative back-bencher to tea party superstar, now can make the jump from the U.S. House to the White House — a gap that hasn't been cleared since 1880.
Mrs. Bachmann's path to the Republican nomination is complex. She has yet to earn a signature legislative achievement on Capitol Hill, and it's unclear whether she can develop the sort of crossover appeal needed to build the kind of coalition that could win primaries and then a general election against President Obama.
"It will be a long shot for Michele Bachmann," said Fred Malek, a prominent fundraiser who now serves as the Republican Governors Association's finance chairman.
"She is certainly articulating a clear and powerful set of views, and I find her to be an attractive candidate, but by the same token, I don't believe she has had the chance to get the record of accomplishment yet that some of these governors have who've run states, had to balance budgets and had to bring people together and manage large enterprises," he said, alluding to the candidacies of the three former governors in the race: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah. Texas Gov. Rick Perry also is considering a bid.
Still, Mrs. Bachmann's performance in the New Hampshire debate this month and the ensuing polls give her supporters and handicappers some reason to think she might have the skills and momentum to become the next James Garfield, the last House member to move directly into the presidency.
The Senate, where Mr. Obama served less than one term, traditionally has been seen as a loftier platform for presidential aspirations than the House, but observers say Mrs. Bachmann should not be underestimated.
"I think it's difficult, but I think she could get nominated," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2000 and 2002 elections. "Voters are very unhappy with the federal government, and Michele represents their voice to a great extent. Now, whether she can transform from being the voice of the right and the disenfranchised to a more mainstream candidate to compete against Obama — that is a more difficult transition."
He added, "They laughed at Ronald Reagan too, but he was able to convince people that he was a safe place to go to vote if you were unhappy with the status quo."
When Mrs. Bachmann, 55, officially joins the presidential field with an announcement Monday in Iowa, the state where she was born, she immediately will stand out: She is the only female candidate in the race.
The married mother of five, onetime foster parent to 23 children and former tax lawyer also has shown an ability to raise large sums of money. In her re-election bid last year, she raised nearly $14 million, most through small donations. It is a must-have political skill in a field that includes deep-pocket candidates who can tap into their personal fortunes if they so choose and who have lined up support from some of the big money bundlers who raised millions of dollars for Sen. John McCain's 2008 bid.
But Mrs. Bachmann's strength is likely to be her ability to stay on message, delivering the fiery anti-government rhetoric that hits home with voters who are angry with what they perceive as the overreach of the Obama administration.
So far, her message is resonating in Iowa, where a poll from the Des Moines Register shows her running neck and neck with Mr. Romney.
In many ways, Mrs. Bachmann is tailor-made for the Hawkeye State. Born in Waterloo, she is a Christian who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage — stances that mesh with many of the evangelical voters who have a big hand in the caucuses that kick off the nomination process.
"She does well with the fiscal conservatives, she does well with social conservatives and she helps bind the tea party to us," said Kevin McLaughlin, the GOP chairman in Polk County, Iowa. "I think that she is attractive to independents. She may be attractive to minorities, but especially to women. Out here, I don't think women are threatened by her. I think they are engaged by her."
Her path to victory is trickier in New Hampshire, where the GOP electorate tends to be fiscally conservative and more moderate-minded on social issues.
That means she will be competing for a much smaller pool of social conservatives there and must broaden her appeal to moderates and independents if she hopes to do well in the nation's first primary.
"There are a lot of candidates going for the evangelicals and social conservatives, so she is going to have to make her case to them that she is the most electable and then she has to broaden her spectrum and appeal to the fiscal conservative wing of the party," said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.
She is still a relative unknown in New Hampshire and is playing catch-up to several of the other campaigns, some of which have had some semblance of a ground operation in place for months — or in Mr. Romney's case, years.
"The biggest hurdle is that she is starting late and a lot of the top-notch workers and campaign activists are divided up into other camps," Mr. Duprey said, adding that a lot of first-time presidential candidates don't understand that the "first time you run, you have to do hundreds of town-hall meetings and living-room parties."
Dante Scala, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, suggested that Mrs. Bachmann's path to victory could come directly from the 1996 playbook of conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, whose populist message and fiery oratory propelled him to a surprise victory.
"If she can consolidate most of the very conservative voters in the state, and get some help from either Pawlenty or Huntsman in splitting the centrist, somewhat conservative, vote with Romney," she could have an impact, Mr. Scala said. "That said, one danger is that the better she does in Iowa, the more that N.H. voters might rally around Romney as the anti-Bachmann candidate."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.