Is Tim Pawlenty turning Michele Bachmann's health into political fodder?

After news emerged that Michele Bachmann seeks occasional treatment for migraines, most candidates left the issue alone. Now Tim Pawlenty is implying it may limit her ability to serve.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty speaks to local residents at The Sports Page bar & grill, on July 20, in Indianola, Iowa.

The story of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s struggle with migraine headaches has elicited an outpouring of compassion, especially from other women – regardless of their politics – who face this challenge.

Now, two days after the story broke on the Daily Caller website, it’s become political fodder in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Since announcing her candidacy on June 13, the charismatic Minnesotan and tea party favorite has been a juggernaut. In national polls of GOP voters, she’s now in second place behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And in Iowa, where caucuses in early 2012 will kick off the nominating process, she’s polling first.

Enter fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, the state’s former governor. He’s been struggling to get much traction with voters, both in the early nominating states and nationally. If he loses badly to her in the informal Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, that could hamper fundraising, and if he makes it to the caucuses and then doesn’t do well that could doom his campaign.

On Wednesday, Mr. Pawlenty moved closer to turning Congresswoman Bachmann’s health into political fodder. When asked about Bachmann’s problem, he asserted first that he didn’t know enough about her particular situation to comment and that he would defer to medical professionals. But then he kept going: “Setting all that aside, all of the candidates, I think, are going to have to be able to demonstrate they can do all of the job all of the time," Pawlenty told reporters, according to news reports.

"There's no real time off in that job,” he said.

Bachmann addressed her health on Tuesday:

“Since entering this campaign for the presidency, I have maintained a full schedule between my duties as congresswoman and as a presidential candidate, traveling across the nation to meet with voters,” she said after a campaign speech in South Carolina. “I have prescribed medication that I take on occasion, whenever symptoms arise, and they keep my migraines under control. But I’d like to be abundantly clear: My ability to function effectively will not affect my ability to serve as commander in chief.”

On Wednesday, Bachmann released a letter from the attending physician of Congress stating that she is in “good general health.”

“Your migraines occur infrequently and have known trigger factors of which you are aware and know how to avoid,” Dr. Brian P. Monahan wrote in the letter to Bachmann.

Presidential health and the physical ability to carry out the duties of the president have always been fair game in campaigns and once in office. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to hide the fact that he used a wheelchair. Other presidents have had well-known ailments. Bachmann presents a peppy demeanor and hard-charging style on the stump, which belie any notions of illness.

But now that her health issue is out in the open, how might it affect her ability to build support? The fact that she’s a woman – still a novelty in presidential politics – and faces a problem more common among women than men adds another wrinkle. Sexism is still very much a live issue in politics.

Until Pawlenty’s comment Wednesday afternoon, Bachmann’s challengers for the Republican nomination had played it safe. When asked by reporters about Bachmann’s health Wednesday in Los Angeles, Mr. Romney dismissed it as a nonissue.

"There is no question in my mind that Michele Bachmann's health is in no way an impediment to her being able to serve as president," Romney said.

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