Michele Bachmann must show staying power in Iowa debate

Two months ago, when she debuted her presidential campaign in a nationally-televised debate from New Hampshire, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) charmed Republicans — and rocketed to the front of a wide-open field — with an engaging and energetic performance.

On Thursday, when Bachmann will appear with seven others at yet another televised debate, this one in Ames, Iowa, she must show that her candidacy has staying power.

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Part of Bachmann’s success in June stemmed from the fact that expectations were low — and she exceeded them. Amid the widespread perception that some of her views are out of the mainstream and that her five years in Congress don’t qualify her to be president of the United States, Bachmann delivered a poised and confident performance that satisfied even some in the Republican establishment that she looked presidential.

Bachmann’s challenge Thursday is to turn in another such performance. She has no trouble on the campaign trail firing up her supporters with her deeply conservative and uncompromising opinions about taxes, government spending and regulation. She also boasts a seemingly endless capacity to lob perfectly sized soundbite hand grenades at President Obama, a skill that will serve her well on national television.

Bachmann’s challenge lies in how she will handle the questions that inevitably will be thrown her way about some of her more conservative views and controversial statements. During this summer’s showdown over the nation’s debt load and credit rating, Bachmann opposed raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances — a view not shared by most Americans. She and her husband, Marcus, own a counseling business in Minnesota that, according to numerous published reports, has engaged in “reparative therapy” — helping homosexuals “cure” themselves of their condition.

She could face questions about both topics Thursday.

Bachmann also may have to navigate questions about her religious faith, which figures enormously in her campaign speeches. Bachmann’s deeply conservative Christian faith resonates with many Republican voters, but, again, it has the potential to alienate mainstream Republicans who are looking for a presidential candidate to focus on the nation’s fiscal matters.

Bachmann, chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, is hugely popular with tea party activists across the country. But too much emphasis on social issues — Bachmann is ardently opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage — also could alienate tea party leaders who want the political conversation to focus equally on fiscal matters.

Ultimately, Bachmann’s challenge Thursday is to continue to energize the conservative base that has already responded so well to her, while also demonstrating to Republican leaders that she has the gravitas and discipline to stick to the fiscal issues that are expected to matter most in the 2012 election.

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