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Michele Bachmann is a top-tier 2012 candidate. Now what?

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann greets supporters at the Republicans of Black Hawk County Dinner in Waterloo, Iowa, August 14, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann put an exclamation point on a remarkable first 50 days in the 2012 presidential race by winning the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday, a victory that cements her status as the frontrunner in next year’s Iowa caucuses and entrenches her in the top tier of candidates.

It’s a remarkably rapid rise for a third-term House member who, until she decided to run for president earlier this year, was best known for her controversial comment that Barack Obama might hold “anti-American views” during a 2008 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

No one now questions that Bachmann belongs in the first tier of candidates along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But with Bachmann’s newfound star status comes a heightened level of scrutiny — both from the media and the Republican electorate.

That deeper dive has already started in some circles — Ryan Lizza’s excellent look into the origins of Bachmann’s political and religious formation is a must-read — but began in earnest this morning with an op-ed from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While praising Bachmann as a “canny politician”, the piece notes that Bachmann has a “record of errant statements that are forgiven by Fox Nation but won’t be if she makes them as the GOP standard-bearer.”

It also slams her opposition to a debt ceiling increase without passage of a balanced budget amendment as a “political fantasy” and raises questions about her limited record of achievement in Congress; “Mrs. Bachmann will have to persuade voters she isn’t the conservative version of Mr. Obama,” reads the op-ed. Wow.

The Journal piece comes on the same day that Politico unfavorably compared Bachmann’s campaign style to that of Perry at a Sunday event in Waterloo, Iowa. “The event highlighted the brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners,” wrote Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith.

That closely-guarded campaign style was on display throughout the past week in Iowa as Bachmann was increasingly shielded from the press — or any extended speechifying — in the runup to the Straw Poll.

In a speech Friday at the Iowa State Fair, Bachmann arrived nearly an hour late for her scheduled time slot at the Des Moines Register’s presidential soapbox and, unlike her competitors for the nomination, spoke for less than five minutes and took no questions.

She did a quick tour of the fairgrounds and was back on her campaign bus, which had been parked right outside the fair entrance, within 15 minutes.

And, during appearances on all five Sunday talk shows — the full Ginsburg! — Bachmann avoided answering many of the substantive questions put to her.

In a back and forth emblematic of Bachmann’s approach, “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory played a clip of past comments she made describing homosexuality as “personal enslavement”.

Her response? “I am running for the presidency of the United States, I am not running to be anyone’s judge.”

The question that remains to be answered is whether attacks on Bachmann’s electability or claustrophobic campaign style will matter to voters in early states.

To date, Bachmann has been the teflon candidate — no negative news stories or flubs on the campaign trail have slowed her momentum.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty learned that lesson the hard way over the past several weeks as he repeatedly tried without success to litigate a case against Bachmann that focused on the fact that she had great rhetoric but few results.

While Bachmann won the Straw Poll, Pawlenty finished a disappointing third — winning less than half the votes she did. He dropped out of the race on Sunday.

And, electability hasn’t typically been a major deciding issue for primary voters — of either party — who tend to vote with their hearts, not their heads.

“While many party leaders care about electability, the vast majority of primary voters do not,” said Mike DuHaime who managed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Most primary voters care far more about a candidate’s issue positions and record than electability.”

That fact doesn’t mean that Bachmann is out of the woods, however.

Republican voters’ first priority — and we heard this time and again in Iowa over the last five days — is nominating a candidate that can beat President Obama.

The level of distaste for and disagreement with the current occupant of the White House is strong and Republicans are convinced that the president is uniquely vulnerable heading into 2012.

While voters won’t sacrifice their basic principles in the nomination contest, if they can choose between two conservatives they will likely go for the one that believe has a better chance at returning the White House to Republican control in 2012.

Under that line of thinking, the entrance of Perry into the race could well keep the electability specter around Bachmann and force her to demonstrate an appeal beyond Republican base voters in Iowa. (Remember that independents and Democrats can vote in theSouth Carolina primary and independent can vote in New Hampshire.)

“Republican primary voters will almost always pick the more conservative candidate and that is one reason Bachmann has done very well,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeman from Mississippi supporting Perry. “Now, with Governor Perry running for president, conservatives can have their cake and eat it, too.”

What’s clear is that Bachmann’s campaign has entered a new stage. What’s not clear is how she will handle it.

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