WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann took another leap in her remarkable climb to national attention and tea party prominence with her freelance response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech.
The tea party champion insists she is not positioning herself as a rival to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. But colleagues marveled Wednesday at her knack for firing up conservatives and her ability to fill a media vacuum from the right, much like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin does.
Scores of lawmakers stood before cameras Tuesday night to tell viewers back home what they thought of Obama's State of the Union address. But Bachmann was the only non-party-leader to have her entire speech go nationwide.
"She has knocked the ball out of the park," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., an 18-year House veteran with good ties to tea partiers. "The rest of us struggle to get our publicity and our name out, and we try to be thoughtful and clever," he said. "And here's somebody who just went to the head of the line, and she's captured the imagination of a lot of Americans."
In Congress only four years, the Minnesotan already was the envy of older colleagues for her frequent TV appearances.
She spent last weekend testing the presidential waters in early caucus state Iowa and then hosted a symposium Monday on the Constitution featuring Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. An even bigger coup followed the next night, when CNN aired live her sharp-tongued reply to Obama, even though the official Republican response came minutes earlier from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The unprecedented one-two response from the opposition party raised eyebrows everywhere. Anxious Republicans and gleeful Democrats said the GOP seemed to be sending mixed messages, hinting at divisions between lawmakers close to the tea party movement and those who are not.
Not so, Bachmann said Wednesday, as she dashed from event to event in a Capitol still buzzing about her moxie and telegenic appeal.
The notion that she was competing with Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and others on Boehner's leadership team "is a fiction of the media," she said in an interview. Her televised response began as "a very low-key parochial event," she said, when the Tea Party Express invited her to address its website by video after Obama's address. "And then last weekend, it's like the media or someone lit a fire under it, and all of a sudden it turned into this, quote, competition," she said.
Bachmann said she alerted Ryan and other leaders that her response might be aired nationally, and no one objected. Ryan "did a wonderful job," she said.
Kingston said he doesn't think there's a division in the House GOP leadership ranks, but Bachmann and her tea party allies are poised to pounce if fissures open.
"You have the infrastructure that, should the opportunity arise, the division could happen overnight," Kingston said. "She set an incredible precedent. There's a phenomenal thing that happened, when a rank-and-file member, with an outside group, has a response to the State of the Union, and then it becomes national."
It was hardly the first time Bachmann, 54, has turned heads. An April campaign rally with her role model, Palin, drew 10,000 people in Minneapolis. Aides have openly hinted she may run for president, a move that would force her to compete with Palin for conservative voters if the former Alaska governor also decides to make the race.
Bachmann's speech Tuesday night left some wondering whether she is more tea partier than Republican. Aides said she was looking into the Tea Party Express camera, rather than the camera feeding CNN. To national TV viewers, she was looking to her right instead of the normal straight-into-viewers-eyes of the camera lens.
It was a rare studio glitch for the former lawyer whose endless supply of quips make her a favorite of cable news networks. Like Palin, she wins avid supporters and severe critics with comments such as her 2008 claim that Obama had "anti-American" views.
Her speech was more measured than some she has given, but it still included barbs and patriotic flourishes. She referred four times to "Obamacare," a derisive term for the 2010 health care law that Ryan did not use.
Under Obama, Bachmann said, "We bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing" health laws.
Bachmann has made other audacious moves in a Capitol Hill institution where politicians often wait many years to make a mark. In November she briefly challenged Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, seen as a fast-rising GOP leader who had paid some dues, for the party's fourth-ranking spot, chairing the Republican conference.
Upon entering politics, Bachmann moved fast, ousting a Republican incumbent to join the Minnesota Senate. She drew attention by seeking a state constitutional ban on gay marriage and by pushing back-to-basics school standards.
Former state lawmaker Dick Day, who headed the GOP caucus during Bachmann's Senate tenure, said her propensity to freelance often caught party leaders by surprise. "She would stand on the Senate floor and do her own thing," Day said. "Sometimes we knew about it as a caucus, and sometimes we didn't."
"She's good on her feet," he said. "She's smart. She looks good. And a lot of things she said I don't disagree with."
Democratic state Sen. Scott Dibble, who tangled with Bachmann over gay marriage, said she has proven adept at gaining attention by "saying very provocative things in every public forum she has."
"I see her as very calculated and very willing to grab the leading issue of the moment in order to maximize that exposure in the limelight," Dibble said.
Bachmann makes no apology for sounding many of the same themes Ryan did Tuesday night.
"If this can double our message to people about where conservatives stand regarding this budget deficit," she said, "then I think it's a good thing."
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