ON THE ROAD TO ESTHERVILLE, Iowa — The cornfields edging two-lane Iowa Highway 9 fade to a sunbaked blur as Rep. Michele Bachmann's blue-and-white campaign coach rolls on, bound for a "town hall" meeting with voters in the basement of a public library 25 minutes down the road.
Inside the bus — which four years ago was chartered by John McCain and whose odometer now has 460,000 miles to show for it — the candidate folds her feet underneath her on a blue velour bench, answering questions with variations of the sound bites she's repeated for months across this critical first-to-vote state.
She pauses just once for a query that seems to catch her by surprise: What's the public's biggest misconception about her?
"Oh, that's a good question," she says, the brassiness in her voice softening as she looks to a pair of campaign aides.
"One thing people will say to me at these town hall conventions ... they'll say 'the media doesn't tell the story of who you are. They make you two-dimensional, a caricature.'"
Bachmann has a point. The choreographed repetition of modern presidential campaigns can turn the most personable candidate into an endless loop of talking points. But any close observer of Bachmann's political career would be hard-pressed to dismiss her as two-dimensional.
At a time when voters accuse politicians of being difficult to pin down on issues, Bachmann proudly draws herself with hard lines and sharp edges. First in Minnesota and later in Washington, Bachmann has alienated some members of her own party nearly as much as Democrats.
On this trip through a conservative corner Bachmann must win to resuscitate her candidacy in Iowa's January caucus, she has another chance to make her case and offer voters a window into a political life that, now clouded by time and rhetoric, remains a singular story.
Bachmann calls herself an accidental politician. But both supporters and critics say that's selling her short.
Campaigning across Iowa, Bachmann frequently reminds voters she is a native.
But that does not explain the route she has traveled: from Waterloo, a manufacturing city of 68,000 where she was born 55 years ago in a Democratic-voting family with union roots, to congresswoman from St. Paul's exurbs whose personal and political life have been shaped by her embrace of evangelical Christianity and later, a highly combative brand of conservatism.
Bachmann's family left Iowa when she was 12 and her father, an engineer, took a job in Minnesota. Her parents divorced two years later. Bachmann's father moved to California. Her mother found work as a store clerk and bank teller, but money was tight. The family managed by rigorously watching spending and relying on the generosity of relatives, says Bachmann's brother, Paul Amble, a Connecticut psychiatrist six years her junior.
"I just remember taking trips down to Iowa where my grandmother lived and we'd come back with huge Tupperware things full of food," Amble says.
The family attended a Lutheran church. But Bachmann says her life was transformed at 16 by a religious awakening. In a speech this year at Liberty University, Bachmann recalled entering church one night with three friends after mistakenly hearing there was a party inside.
"When we got up to the front of the church, all of us under the power of the Holy Spirit, were called to our knees and we knelt in front of the altar and we started in prayer and the Holy Spirit convicted me and touched my heart and that of my three friends and one thing that I understood at that moment is that I didn't know Jesus," she said.
In college, Bachmann met husband Marcus (in a vision, God told her to marry him, she says). After law school, the Bachmanns returned to Minnesota, eventually settling in Stillwater, whose historic downtown along the St. Croix River is a popular shopping and dining destination. Marcus opened a Christian mental health counseling practice nearby.
Michele Bachmann tells audiences she began working as a "tax litigation attorney." But the outspoken critic of big government avoids talking about the specifics of her job as an Internal Revenue Service lawyer pursuing people who did not pay their taxes.
The couple sent their five children to a private Christian school. But over the years their colonial became home to 23 foster children who attended public schools. Bachmann says she became dismayed by one girl's high school math assignment to color a poster.
In 1993, Bachmann joined a group starting one of Minnesota's first publicly funded charter schools. But it immediately became the center of controversy, with some parents and teachers complaining founders were trying to incorporate religious teachings.
Bob Beltrame, a member of the school's parental advisory board, says teachers complained that Bachmann and another school board member were sitting in on classes and questioning them about their methods. He recalls a phone conversation with Bachmann that fall discussing the school's approach.
"I remember one thing she said. I'll never forget it. She said, 'You know, if you really read the scientific literature you'll find that today there's a lot more evidence of creationism than there is the theory of evolution,'" Beltrame says.
The controversy peaked that December, when the school's CEO and board members including Bachmann resigned. But her interest in education and policy was far from over.
Icicle lights twinkle from the ceiling of the Rock Rapids Community Center when Bachmann steps before about 60 people on a Friday afternoon, betraying the Rotary Room's usual function as a rental wedding hall. On the way to the podium, she works her way diligently around the room, always smiling and spending a few seconds with each person, being sure to ask their names and to make contact with her deep aquamarine eyes. "Hi, I'm Michele," she sometimes offers.
"A couple of Lyon County facts for you," says Cody Hoefert, a chiropractor and chairman of the local Republican party, in his introduction of the candidate.
In 2004, the county gave George W. Bush the third largest margin of victory of any in Iowa, he tells Bachmann. What's more, Rep. Steve King — generally considered one of the most conservative members of Congress — gets 80 percent of Lyon's vote.
"Oh, man," Bachmann replies. The diminutive politician beams up at Hoefert, more than a foot taller. "This is it! This is the center of the universe."
Bachmann assures the audience that together they will take their country back. "This will be a miracle from God for us to be able to repeal 'Obamacare,'" she says, inviting questions. The last comes from Hoefert, who asks if Bachmann understands what it's like to spend hours on the phone trying to get an answer from federal tax officials.
"Yes, I have called the IRS because my background is I'm a federal tax litigation attorney," replies Bachmann, not mentioning that she worked for the very agency being criticized. "So, yes, I have called them. I've called them and been rerouted 19 times."
In Minnesota, Bachmann attacked state education standards called Profile of Learning, warning church audiences the guidelines were dumbing down lessons. She railed against federal involvement in schools.
"My clearest memory is people saying 'amen, amen,' often," said Mary Cecconi, then a Stillwater school board member who attended one of Bachmann's presentations. "It had a true sense of a revival meeting."
One presentation impressed Bill Pulkrabek, a county commissioner and chair of the district Republican Party, who found Bachmann articulate, smart and attractive.
"I said you're too good of a candidate to be sitting on the sidelines," Pulkrabek said.
Pulkrabek backed Bachmann's 1999 run for Stillwater's school board, atop a slate with four of her friends. But at a candidate forum, Bachmann said she might not serve the full term because she was considering a challenge to state Sen. Gary Laidig, a moderate Republican in the legislature for 28 years.
"I tried to present information to Sen. Laidig on the Profile of Learning, he was not interested," the Stillwater Gazette quoted her as saying. "I told him if he's not willing to be more responsive to the citizens that I may have to run for his seat or find someone else who would do so."
Bachmann and other Republican board candidates lost, alienating voters accustomed to non-partisan elections. But the turnout tripled from the previous election, raising her profile.
Laidig said he arranged for Bachmann to meet legislators, but was one of just two Republicans who voted to retain state education standards. Still, he was surprised the following April at the district Republican convention, when she was nominated to oppose him.
Bachmann has said she came to the convention without makeup and in a sweatshirt, not expecting to be nominated. But Bill McCallum, a party official responsible for counting votes, said he saw printed signs supporting Bachmann when he walked in the door. Bachmann won the nomination by two votes. Her candidacy caused a Republican rift, with the Senate minority leader backing Laidig in the primary.
But Bachmann blanketed the district in yard signs and sent out mass mailings, including a letter promising to defend the Second Amendment in which she called a Washington rally for gun control, "the Misinformed Mom March." And she won.
In the state Senate, Bachmann led a campaign to ban gay marriage. Some Republicans saw the issue as needlessly distracting and gay rights activists called for a boycott of stores in Bachmann's hometown. But Bachmann urged 3,000 supporters at a 2004 rally at the Capitol to "storm the doors."
Her push came despite divisions within her own family. One of the most notable opponents of the gay marriage ban was Bachmann's stepsister, Helen LaFave, a lesbian who came to the Capitol with her partner to "bear witness on what she's doing that's so personally hurtful to me and to so many others."
The campus center at Dordt College in Sioux Center is packed at lunch hour as Bachmann takes the stage. When rivals Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain spoke here last summer, Bachmann was on her way to victory in an August straw poll. But ever since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race the same day, Bachmann has struggled to reclaim the mantle as the field's conservative champion.
Today, Bachmann wins the loudest applause for statements against abortion and defending traditional marriage. But she speaks mostly about her distaste for big government.
"I want to close down the federal Department of Education — turn off the lights, lock the doors and keep that money here in Iowa," she says.
Afterward, standing before TV cameras in the parking lot, Bachmann briefly commends Perry for announcing an energy plan similar to hers, before tarring him as a politician too willing to ignore the Constitution.
"We've seen President Obama do that by putting into place EPA regulations through the executive order. That's a misuse of power and authority. Unfortunately we've seen Gov. Perry have a pattern of that in Texas," Bachmann says. "But I do thank him and welcome him for endorsing my energy plan today."
When Bachmann ran for a House seat in 2006, she drew criticism after a video surfaced in which she told worshippers at a church in her district that God "has focused like a laser beam in his reasoning on this race," and had instructed her to run.
But in a year when Democrats took control of the House, Bachmann won handily.
"I'm coming here as a conservative," she told reporters. "I'm not coming here for the purpose of controversy."
In Washington, Bachmann emerged as one of the most outspoken members of Congress, criticizing Obama's "anti-American views" during the 2008 presidential campaign. Republican leaders kept her at arm's length, despite her fundraising prowess, supporting a rival's bid for a House leadership role.
Bachmann, though, found her own soapbox, embracing the tea party movement and delivering a response on its behalf to Obama's State of the Union address in January, moments after the Republican Party's official response.
And when conservative commentator Glenn Beck staged a "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall in August 2010 but did not invite Bachmann, she staged her own rally immediately afterward.
It was a reminder of Bachmann's fierce will, says Ron Carey, a former chair of the Minnesota Republican Party who served as Bachmann's chief of staff in 2010.
Carey — the fifth chief of staff in four years — quit after five months. He says he left because Bachmann repeatedly refused to listen to her staff's advice. The last straw, he said, was a disagreement over paying a campaign contractor. Carey says Bachmann believed the contractor was not fulfilling its duty, and while he agreed, he pointed out that she was bound by a contract. She ordered him not to pay the company anyway.
"She wanted what she wanted the way she wanted it and even though the facts said she couldn't have it, she was just adamant she was going to have it her way," Carey said.
On the road, Bachmann tells voters she will push to elect "13 like-minded senators," giving her a filibuster-proof majority to push through changes as president.
As her bus nears Estherville, she is asked what that says about her vision of leadership for a country whose increasingly fractured politics have left many voters mourning the seeming inability of leaders to find compromise.
"My plan is not to fail. My plan is to succeed," Bachmann says.
Later, about 60 voters fill the basement of the Estherville library to hear the candidate and ask for autographs.
"It's going to be a lot of tough love," Bachmann promises if she's elected president. "You're going to be hearing screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth from Washington, D.C. all the way to Estherville."
Afterward in the library's lobby, Bachmann rushes over to hug Stacie Seckinger, a long-ago friend from Stillwater. It's been years, the women tell each other, and so much has changed. Seckinger's daughter, Erin, recalls how Bachmann gave her class a tour of the state capitol after her election to the Minnesota Senate. Then Bachmann dashes for the bus.
This, Seckinger says, was the same strong woman she knew as a school activist.
"She knows what she wants," Seckinger says. "And she doesn't waver."
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