Tea Party tunes in to Bachmann's earner overdrive

Michele Bachmann's prolific fundraising is rocking the boat for Sarah Palin. Rupert Cornwell on the rise of a new political force

She has five children and long dark hair. She is prone to gaffes, but she can fire up a crowd. She appeals especially strongly to the conservative wing of her party – Tea Party types and born-again Christians alike. She's a terrific fundraiser, and is seriously considering a White House run. Oh – and one other thing. She's not Sarah Palin.

In the thus-far lacklustre Republican contest to produce a challenger to Barack Obama next year, meet Michele Bachmann. She may have been a member of Congress for barely four years and she is hardly a blip in national polls. Indeed, officially she is not even a candidate.

But in a show-stealing performance last weekend at a political conference in Iowa, the state whose caucuses early next year kick off the 2012 Republican primary season, she most certainly sounded like a candidate – and one who, just possibly, could turn the fight for the nomination on its head.

These of course are very early days. Right now, the only declared Republican candidate is a pizza chain owner and talk show host called Herman Cain. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, seems set to run, as does the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour, respectively former governor of Minnesota and present governor of Mississippi.

For the rest though, all is obscure. If the Republicans have a front-runner at this stage, it is either Mr Romney or Mike Huckabee, the ordained Baptist minister and one-time governor of Arkansas, who were the closest challengers of John McCain in the 2008 primaries.

But Mr Huckabee seems uncertain whether to enter the race, as does Ms Palin – both of them wondering whether it is worth sacrificing comfy and lucrative jobs as Fox News commentators for the rigours of a presidential campaign which currently is Mr Obama's to lose. And in this season of the anti-Washington insider, herein lies Ms Bachmann's opening.

On paper, her qualifications are slim. Once upon a time she was a Democrat, and in 1976 served as a 20-year-old student volunteer on the Carter campaign. But she quickly saw the folly of her ways and by 1980 was working for Ronald Reagan. Later she became a tax lawyer and an anti-abortion activist before winning a Congressional seat in 2006, representing a suburban district north and west of the state capital Minneapolis.

From the outset she made an impact. Michele Bachmann may lack experience – but not drive, self-belief or a talent for unrelenting self-promotion. The last named was evident on the January 2007 evening when then President George W Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress.

As Mr Bush slowly made his way out of the chamber afterwards, gladhanding and signing autographs in the customary manner, Ms Bachmann, then a Congresswoman for all of three weeks, clung to him for fully 30 seconds, to finally be rewarded with a presidential kiss for her pains. The scene, which was televised, generated much mirth on the internet and among political commentators. Ms Bachmann, though, was not concerned. Every headline helps.

On Capitol Hill, she soon attracted more of them, as an outspoken Republican conservative who opposed fluorescent light bulbs and called for new domestic oil exploration, offshore and in the Arctic (shades of Ms Palin's "Drill, Baby Drill" routine.) Global warming, she asserted, was a hoax.

The Obama election victory only sharpened her views. The new president, she suggested, was "anti-American". As the Tea Party movement – anti-government, anti-immigrant and above all anti-heathcare reform – became a force in the land, Ms Bachmann emerged as its de facto liaison officer in the House. When the Obama administration was pushing its cap-and-trade energy legislation, she appealed to Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous" to prevent its passage. Fortunately the bill folded before her urgings could be put into practice by supporters.

When the 112th Congress convened in January, Ms Bachmann was the natural founder of a new Tea Party caucus, at the head of a faction that soon proved a thorn in the side of the Republican leadership. For that reason, she was blocked in her bid to become Republican Conference chair, the party's fourth-ranking job in the House. She was, however, given a coveted position on the House Intelligence committee – a position that would shore up her skimpy foreign policy credentials in any presidential run.

Ms Bachmann says she will make a final decision by June. But she has already taken the penultimate step of setting up an exploratory committee, and behaves more like a candidate with every passing day. It may be all but inconceivable that she could win the nomination, let alone the presidency, but she should not be underestimated. Money is the mother's milk of US politics, and Ms Bachmann can raise it – a prodigious $13.5m reportedly during her second term in Congress. Iowa too is an ideal starting point for any Bachmann campaign. As a politician from next-door Minnesota, she is not only already well known there; better still, as she unfailingly reminds local audiences, she was actually born in Iowa. The caucuses moreover are dominated by social conservatives. No matter if they are less fixated on budget deficits than restoring American values. "Social conservatism is fiscal conservatism," Ms Bachmann thundered to the cheering audience at last weekend's conference.

In 2008, Mr Huckabee's victory in Iowa suddenly turned him into a serious contender. Ms Bachmann will count on a strong performance to do the same this time around – something that is all the more likely if Ms Palin and Mr Huckabee decide to sit out 2012.

After Iowa of course the terrain becomes less favourable. Ms Bachmann has, for instance, limited appeal to voters in the New Hampshire primary that follows Iowa, who pride themselves on picking winners. Win or lose, however, she will have cemented her place as a force on her party's right. And no longer, perhaps, will she be dismissed as "Palin lite".