TV debate to star Tea Party's other woman

After months spent buttering up activists in primary states, and hitting the political g-spots of conservative fundraisers, the self-declared leader of the Congressional Tea party movement is about to make her debut in a national debate, in a bid to upset the Republican race and position herself as the person best able to unseat President Barack Obama next year.

The woman is not Sarah Palin, but rather Michele Bachmann, a third-term congresswoman from Minnesota, who will square off against front-runner Mitt Romney and others in the first major Republican debate of the election season on US television this evening.

While Mr Romney remains comfortably ahead in the polls, and even scores level pegging in a theoretical match-up with President Obama, and Ms Palin continues her will-she-won't-she tease, sitting out the debate, it's Ms Bachmann who is the star turn in tonight's CNN debate in New Hampshire.

All the candidates – who include Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor, and Herman Cain, a pizza chain millionaire with no political experience – can be expected to cloak themselves in Tea party themes of slashing government spending and bringing down the deficit, but Ms Bachmann can claim to be the real deal. As such, the debate promises to be a test of the Tea party's effectiveness within the Republican Party, and could set the tone for the primary season, which begins in Iowa and New Hampshire next February.

The debate will also be a test of Mr Romney's ability to withstand an onslaught of criticism from the right over his record as governor of Massachusetts and his introduction there of a universal healthcare system largely copied by President Obama, which is now anathema to Republican activists.

All the candidates promise to unpick federal healthcare laws, which they call Obamacare. Mr Pawlenty turned his fire on the Republican front-runner yesterday, renaming the laws "Romneycare" to implicate Mr Romney.

The debate is an opportunity for long-shot candidates to emerge as credible challengers. Former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich is barely clinging to the race after a swath of senior staffers, including his campaign manager, quit last week. Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, could be a dark horse if he can talk up his record of winning races in a Democrat-leaning state.

The line-up in New Hampshire, however, does not reflect the final field of Republican candidates. Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China, is missing, as is Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, who is mulling over a run.

It is the absence of the Republican's 2008 vice-presidential candidate which hands Ms Bachmann the opportunity to pose as the Thinking Sarah Palin. It is something she neatly managed in The Wall Street Journal this weekend, when the interviewer Stephen Moore asked about her reading on economics. "She responds that she admires the late Milton Friedman as well as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams," Mr Moore wrote. "'I'm also an Art Laffer fiend,' she adds. 'And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love Von Mises,' getting excited and rattling off some of his classics such as Human Action and Bureaucracy. 'When I go on vacation, I bring Von Mises.'"

The contrast with Ms Palin could hardly be starker. Her failure to come up with an answer when the television interviewer Katie Couric asked which magazines she read remains one of the comedic highlights of the 2008 presidential campaign. And political bloggers were again having fun at the former Alaska governor's expense after combing through a trove of emails released last Friday which detailed correspondence between Ms Palin and her staff. In one, an aide had to give her a from-scratch briefing on the history and political stances of the National Review ahead of a trip organised by the magazine. The magazine is the most famous political publication in conservative circles.