Michele Bachmann 'the one to watch' as she kicks off her presidential campaign

Michele Bachmann won neck-and-neck status with presumed front-runner Mitt Romney in the first Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. But with a serious candidacy come tough questions about her record and political assertions.

Chris Usher/CBS News/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington Sunday. Bachmann said she is gratified by the Iowa Poll that was released Saturday and showed she was in a statistical tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for first place among likely Iowa caucus-goers.

When Michele Bachmann officially kicks off her presidential campaign Monday, she’ll have been given a tremendous weekend boost.

She won neck-and-neck status with presumed front-runner Mitt Romney in the first Des Moines Register Iowa Poll out Saturday night, which left all the other GOP hopefuls back in the dust. And she was all over the Sunday morning TV talk shows. A certifiably serious candidate, in other words.

In the Iowa Poll, Bachmann got 22 percent to Romney’s 23 percent. Trailing behind were Herman Cain with support from 10 percent of potential caucus goers, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul with 7 percent each, Tim Pawlenty with 6 percent, Rick Santorum with 4 percent, and Jon Huntsman with 2 percent.

Perhaps just as important, more respondents in the Iowa Poll picked Bachmann as their second choice (18 percent) than choose Romney (10 percent) or anybody else. Meanwhile, an Associated Press-GfK poll this past week showed her favorability rating among Republicans jumping from 41 percent to 54 percent. Her “unfavorables” among Republicans are very low as well.

“The surprise here is how quickly Michele Bachmann is catching on,” Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told the Des Moines Register news organization. “To me, she’s the one to watch, not Romney.”

But it’s no surprise to Bachmann herself, a tea party favorite who doesn’t hesitate to weigh in on major issues and who lays out a background that she (and her supporters) think fully qualifies her for the presidency.

"I'm 55 years old. I've been married 33 years," she said on Fox News Sunday. "I'm not only a lawyer, I have a post-doctorate degree in federal tax law from William and Mary. I've worked in serious scholarship … my husband and I have raised five kids, we've raised 23 foster children. We've applied ourselves to education reform. We started a charter school for at-risk kids. I've also been a state senator and member of the United States Congress for five years."

Still, with near-front-runner status and a declared candidacy comes closer scrutiny.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning web site PolitiFact, for example, has fact-checked 23 Bachmann statements. The result: one statement is rated as “true” (regarding Obama and the debt ceiling), two are judged to be “half true,” four “barely true,” nine “false,” and seven “pants on fire!” – including Bachmann’s assertion that then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had a “$100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she's flying.”

Even Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, who might have been expected to be friendlier (or at least more polite), asked Bachmann: “Are you a flake?”

But aside from the questions meant to provoke, there are more serious ones as well.

In its Sunday edition, the Los Angeles Times reported that “the Minnesota Republican and her family have benefited personally from government aid, an examination of her record and finances shows” – not exactly the kind of news to warm a tea partyer’s heart.

“A counseling clinic run by her husband has received nearly $30,000 from the state of Minnesota in the last five years, money that in part came from the federal government,” the LA Times reported. “A family farm in Wisconsin, in which the congresswoman is a partner, received nearly $260,000 in federal farm subsidies.”

Then there are those millions of dollars in earmarks she won representing Minnesota in Congress. (She’s since pledged not to take any more earmarks.)

Naturally, she’d rather point out what she sees as her opponents’ inconsistencies and weak points in the spectrum of conservative issues – as she did Sunday regarding Romney’s record on mandatory health insurance and abortion.

There’s no doubt that Michele Bachmann is perceived by many as an interesting and unusual political character. Some of that is sexism, as it is with Sarah Palin.

But “the secret of Bachmann's success is that every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger,” writes Matt Taibbi in a hard-hitting Rolling Stone essay headlined "Michele Bachmann's Holy War."

“She has brilliantly piloted a media system that is incapable of averting its eyes from a story,” Taibbi writes, “riding that attention to an easy conquest of an overeducated cultural elite from both parties that is far too full of itself to understand the price of its contemptuous laughter.”

Monday, Bachmann plans to announce her candidacy from her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa.

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