The guest of honour at a private gathering of conservative Republicans in a Scottsdale hotel is dressed in a mustard jacket with small epaulettes that gives her a chic-lieutenant look. A local Tea Party delegation presents her with a plaque and finally she gets to the microphone. "I am so stinkin' proud of the state of Arizona," she begins to excited applause. Remind you of someone?
Next comes a folksy, 30-minute recitation of Tea Party commandments – up with the Constitution, down with government and taxes – punctuated by gobs of bile aimed at Barack Obama. Sure sounds awfully like a certain former governor of Alaska. This lady is peppy, attractive and quickly has the audience in the palm of her hand.
So that the women in the house – and they are in the majority – know she is just an ordinary "mom" like them, she spins a tale about going to the same family restaurant (Perkins) every day for breakfast with her husband, Marcus, to order the same breakfast: scrambled eggs, three buttermilk pancakes and a decaf.
This, though, is not Sarah Palin, but Michele Bachmann, a third-term Republican congresswoman from Minnesota who not only waves the flag for the Tea Party on Capitol Hill – she co-founded the Tea Party Caucus last year – but can also claim to be further to the right than any other Republican in the House of Representatives. She calls global warming a "hoax", has suggested that homosexuality is a treatable sickness and abhors Obama's "gangster government" which has foisted "socialised medicine" on America.
The clincher in the breakfast story comes when Bachmann, who has five children with her husband and has foster-parented no fewer than 23 others (yes, the Christians love her for it), reveals that she will be turning 55 in a few days. This means that in addition to the "early riser" discount, she will also be getting a price break at Perkins as a senior citizen. "So you know you can trust misers like us with your chequebook!" she exclaims. It's a line, you suspect, that she plans to use a thousand times over in the months ahead.
Next to Palin, the congresswoman would stand out first because of stature – she measures five foot two inches – but also because of her ideological fierceness. If liberals sometimes choke on their dinner at the sight of Palin, the mere mention of Bachmann makes their hummus curdle. She would, in other words, be an entertaining if slightly frightening phenomenon were she to remain where you might think she belongs, on the fringe of American politics appealing to a narrow base of radical conservatives.
That she is at this hotel today is one of many indications that that is not where she sees herself – and that her base may be a lot broader than some even in her own party would care to recognise. Over the past several weeks, Bachmann has been criss-crossing the land stirring up enthusiasm in states that are either friendly to conservative causes – she is congratulating Arizona today because it has just cut $1bn from its state budget – or, more importantly, are pivotal in the early stages of the nomination marathon that begins next February, like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
We know that the field of possible Republican challengers for the White House in 2012 has been both slow to form and is looking uninvitingly grey. Possible or likely runners include a former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and three former governors, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty. Current Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, is set to throw his hat in. A certain Donald Trump says he is interested. And then, of course, there is Palin herself. Of her intentions, we still know precious little.
First hints that Bachmann fancied herself as something more than a backbencher came on the January night that Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. The Republican leadership chose representative Paul Ryan to deliver the five-minute televised rebuttal. But then up popped Bachmann with a freelance rebuttal of her own that was carried live by CNN. It looked like a deliberate dare to her party elders: just try to keep me down!
It's possible Bachmann is just seeking attention, but most now think not. "I'll make a decision about my candidacy in the summer sometime," she tells this reporter in Arizona. It's been widely reported that she intends creating an exploratory committee – the usual first step before formally declaring – in June. And nearly every day brings another clue that she is serious about pursuing the White House. Earlier this month, she hired the man who served as Huckabee's political director in Iowa in 2008 to do the same job for her. And there is the money. It is pouring in already. In the first 90 days of this year she harvested $2m, more than anyone else who might be running.
No one is more baffled by the sudden rise of Bachmann than the Republican establishment in Washington. It isn't just that her positions are radical. She has also in recent
weeks shown herself prone to embarrassing mistakes of fact. She blasted Obama for taking a trip to India that she said, quite erroneously, was costing taxpayers $200m a day. She praised an audience in New Hampshire recently for living in the state where the Revolutionary War was launched, when Massachusetts can more accurately lay claim to that. Recalling the dog's breakfast that Palin made of her interviews with news anchor Katie Couric, as John McCain's running mate in 2008, some in the Republican leadership are starting to quiver.
It is presumably this inclination to disregard the lines between fact, speculation and outright fiction that emboldens Bachmann to tell her Arizona audience the "truth" about the rebel forces in Libya. Obama is handing that country – and all its oil – to al-Qa'ida. This she knows because it is in a British newspaper. (She reads newspapers, at least.) But why not throw in some other nasty groups while we are at it? "Let's say maybe not everyone is from the al-Qa'ida in the rebel forces," Bachmann intones. "Maybe they aren't all Hezbollah. But let me ask you this. How long do you think it will be, if the rebels win, before al-Qa'ida, Hezbollah and the Muslim brotherhood ... take over the leadership of the country?"
Bachmann, hardly a foreign affairs veteran, sees that the audience likes where this is going. "Consider what the outcome of a failed experiment like this could be. Barack Obama has not only reduced and diminished America's standing in the world. I believe he has put our peace and security at risk. He must go!"
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute – a conservative think-tank, mind you – is among those looking on with a sort of fascinated horror. Bachmann "has the distinction", he notes, "of having been labelled by the two most objective fact-checking organisations in the land as having made the most utterly false statements of anybody in public life. Her punishment for this is to raise more money than any other candidate and to get on more TV news shows.
"It tells you a lot about the political culture of America right now," Ornstein goes on. "It doesn't matter if this is someone who by any objective standard shouldn't be passing the laugh test. If she is in this field, she has to be taken reasonably seriously. And God help us is my response to that."
Aside from the accuracy issue, there is also her management style. Here is a similarity between her and Palin: she makes most of her decisions according to her own and her husband's instincts, never mind the political operatives around her. Last year, in a five-month period, she went through five chiefs of staff. Among those who quit was Ron Carey, a former chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, who defected to help Governor Pawlenty's campaign. Today, he is blunt about the notion of her seeking the presidency.
"While she passes the conservative test, my opinion from my association with her is she's not going to be an electable candidate for us," he recently noted. "And even if she were elected I don't believe she would be ready for the position of the president of the United States." Not wise enough and not centrist enough.
But to sit in this small hotel ballroom and witness the connection she has with her fast-growing band of followers is to understand that while her winning the main prize remains unimaginable, Bachmann would make more than just ripples were she to enter the race. And that is before we get to the Iowa factor. Iowa Republicans are notoriously conservative. On top of that, Bachmann was born in the state and spent most of her childhood there. It isn't mad to think that she could win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses next February. That would be a bombshell that would alter the dynamics of the whole 2012 marathon.
Setting the just-presented Tea Party plaque on the podium, Bachmann looks up at her 200-strong audience and then tells them how great they are. "You know that you have turned the world upside down, don't you? They write about you in London, they write about you in France and they write about you in China. The whole world is trying to understand the Tea Party at the moment."
Among the many enthusiasms shared by Bachmann with her supporters is a toxic distrust of the media. This reporter's experience was predictably scratchy. Upon arriving at the Arizona event, writer and photographer found their way barred by two determined looking sheriff's deputies, even though permission to cover the meeting had been agreed in advance. The ensuing stand-off in the hotel lobby was finally resolved, but only just.
Bachmann isn't to know on this day that barely a week later it will be Tea Party demands that force the Democrats and President Obama to accept $38bn in cuts in the 2011 federal budget. Closing the federal deficit is one of her and the Tea Party's defining issues. "They called all of you extremists... and by the way that what's Obama calls the terrorists. I think he calls them extremist, too. You are behind, at the minimum, cutting 0.89 per cent out of the budget. Oh. Isn't that extreme? That is sooooo extreme!" These and most of her remarks are punctuated by repeated eruptions of applause and several standing ovations.
"In the beginning I doubted that a woman could move out Obama," says Terryn Barker, a credit card counsellor in Phoenix sitting near the back of the room. "But the more I hear her speak, the more I think she can do it." Her friend, Dixie Henderson, a relocation advisor, agrees. "She knows what's going on."
Both professional women in middle age, they seize on the opportunity to apprise a foreign reporter of a few "realities" about their country. And about Obama. "In a word, he is evil," says Henderson, who has just been at a UN meeting in New York on the status of women attended by a "bunch of lesbians". She adds: "He is destroying this country. He does not love America. We need a president who loves America."
The specific targets of Barker's venom are Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker, and the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. (Bachmann will be mentioning their names too, eliciting instant hisses around the room.) "Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are Communists. They won't say it but they have a Communist agenda, let's just say that. In the November issue of Pravda, they said that they had almost completed the takeover of the Democratic Party." By "they" she means Communist people residing in Russia. When it is gently suggested that Bachmann might be a better bet than Palin as the Tea Party standard-bearer next year because the latter may not be too bright, a woman sitting one row ahead spins around and exclaims, "Well, at least Palin doesn't think there are 57 states". Who does? "Obama does," all three reply in unison. (Subsequent research yields a moment in the 2008 campaign when a worn-out Obama at a town hall indeed misspoke to this effect. He was quick to correct himself, of course.)
Among those who will leave this meeting more persuaded than ever that Bachmann is the candidate for them is Justin Mussomeli, a 41-year-old neurologist. He dismisses those who say as a third-term congresswoman, Bachmann simply doesn't have the experience. Obama, he says, had less. And he is similarly unimpressed by the argument that her right-wing positions mean she will not be able to appeal in a general election to the all-important independents. "That's one of the big lies out there," he insists. "The middle ground in America is conservative. Middle Americans believe in this kind of conservatism."
What that is, exactly, Bachmann is happy to spell out. The quest for an end to deficits, lower taxes and smaller government springs from a literal reading of the Constitution. It is not an "optional document or a living document". She goes on: "Jefferson said he wanted to bind down the legislature and the executive with the chains of the Constitution. The United Kingdom was all about tyranny. Been there, done that. What they (the founding fathers) were after was maximum liberty. The only way to do that was to keep the maximum amount of liberty for the individual and the minimum amount of power for a central government."
That there's a nativist tone to her rhetoric is no surprise. Great nations in history went into steep decline, she tells her audience, when they "became too involved in too many wars and when they allowed too many people to come from other nations and invade their nation and change their culture." The obvious references to Libya and barriers to immigration draw loud murmurs of approval.
If Bachmann has a secret weapon, it may be her sincerity. "She genuinely believes what she says whether it's false or not," Ornstein suggests. She does not mind recalling, meanwhile, how she and her husband used to be Democrats. They worked for the Jimmy Carter campaign and even danced at one of his inauguration balls. Want to know why she flipped Republican? One day she was reading a "snotty" book by Gore Vidal on a train, she recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He was kind of mocking the founding fathers and I just thought, I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, 'You know what? I don't think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican'." (So she is Gore Vidal's fault.)
As she ponders whether to run for real, Michele Bachmann might be advised to eye the intentions of Sarah Palin. "I love Governor Palin," she insists as we speed-walk together towards the hotel car park after her speech, the same sheriff's deputies glowering at my intrusion. "She is a powerful person and I have great respect for her, and she will come to her own independent decision and I will come to mine."
So they are not talking to each other about it, then. But it's hard to imagine both of them joining the presidential derby without risking splitting the support of the Tea Party faithful and other conservatives down the middle and handing the nomination to a centrist Republican, say Romney or Gingrich. But if Palin, who is nothing if not a careful protector of her own career path, would pay attention to this, perhaps Bachmann would not. Because she has things she just wants to say. Because she is sincere about them. And that is why she may be the only woman in next year's presidential race, and not Palin.
The 2012 presidential race Republican hopefuls
Former Arkansas Governor, he made a presidential bid in 2008, but after a strong start, suffered from not being a familiar enough name. That shouldn't be a problem this time: the former Baptist preacher now hosts a Fox News talk show. But he may not be seen to have the necessary economic experience in the current climate.
The property mogul and reality TV star might sound like the novelty option, but he has been doing surprisingly well in the polls. Obsessed with President Obama's birth certificate: he likes to loudly declare that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and hence isn't actually American at all. Not thought to have much of a chance.
Another former governor, for Minnesota, he was the first Republican to make an official bid, forming an Exploratory Committee in March. Considered a dull but safe option, he is one of the more moderate contenders, and in with a pretty good chance. He's keen that Bachmann stays out of the race, as they both hail from the same state.
A congressman from Texas with a devoted following of libertarians including many younger Republicans. He also ran last time, but it is not thought that he would ever have a chance of winning. And if he decides not to run, there's a chance his son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, might instead.
The current governor of Indiana. There's much affection for this motorbike-riding man of the people, and he's seen as someone who gets things done. But while his strong line on fiscal policy is popular, a slightly dismissive approach to social hot potatoes such as abortion legislation, gay marriage and stem-cell research may be exploited by opponents.
Former Massachusetts governor, former CEO of Bain Capital and CEO of Salt Lake Winter Games, the moderate Mormon is a frontrunner. However, the reforms he made to the Massachusetts healthcare system were similar to Obama's, making him a target for conservative attacks. The second to declare this year, he made his first presidential bid in 2008.
Not much introduction necessary. The former Alaskan governer, John McCain running mate and reality-TV star, hockey-mom Palin struggles to be taken seriously and may not even run. If she does, however, her ubiquity and ability to play the social media game may help her chances.
The former Speaker of the House of Representatives and liked by Republicans for authoring the 1994 party document 'Contract with America'. His personal record is less promising: he cheated on his second wife with a staffer while leading the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton following his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Minnesotan congresswomen, Tea Party co-founder and favourite within the movement. Stridently right-wing and creative with the truth in a way that has won her comparisons with Palin, she's seen as being too far out for many voters. Still, she's putting plenty of effort in to winning over new supporters in the early primary states.
Former Pennsylvania US Senator. Very conservative and probably too polarising to be a serious contender. Still faces allegation of homophobia after a controversial interview in 2003 where he appeared to compare homosexuality with bestiality and paedophilia. Looks likely to throw his hat in, however.
By Holly Williams