Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had her best debate outing of the campaign, when she needed it most. She no longer is expected to win the Iowa caucuses, but on the positive side she may well exceed expectations with a strong finish.

While the media focused on her clever tactic of lumping Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney together (“Newt-Gingrich”) her best answer may have come on Social Security and the payroll tax cut. As I have reported, the candidates had previously fallen short in explaining the foolishness of the payroll tax cut and its impact on the solvency of Social Security:

Bachmann from Saturday’s debate in Iowa:

This is President Obama’s plan, a temporary gimmick, not permanent solution. That’s what the business community is looking for.

That’s where real jobs will be created. The reason why this is so detrimental to the economy as well is that this blew a hole, in other words, it took away $111 billion away from the Social Security Trust Fund. This is a very real issue for senior citizens, because we have to pay the Social Security checks that are going out. . . . I don’t agree with Barack Obama. We have candidates on this stage that are standing with Barack Obama on this issue. But this year alone, it — this will also cost the Social Security Trust Fund another $112 billion. And we don’t have enough money this year in the Social Security Trust Fund to put out those checks. Which means, we have to go to the General Treasury to get the money. And trust me, when you open the door to the General Treasury, the only thing that comes out are moths and feathers. There’s nothing in there. So we have to recognize, we can’t spend money that we don’t have.

Now she knows that the trust fund is a useful fiction, but her essential point was on target. Charles Blahous, a public trustee for Social Security and well regarded expert on entitlements, told me on Sunday that Bachmann’s remarks were strong. “The temptation is to duck this issue because no conservative wants to be seen as against extending a tax cut. Plus, it’s hard to explain concisely that the current policy isn’t a genuine tax cut because it simply shifts Social Security’s financing burdens from payroll taxpayers to income taxpayers.” He praised her remarks, noting: “Her answer was perceptive because it addressed both problematic aspects of the policy: first, reducing Social Security’s payroll tax income, and second, bailing out the program from the general fund.”

When Bachmann is “on” in this fashion on policy details she is one of the better debaters. And she can wield a stiletto as well. Throughout the debate she was arguably the most effective candidate in skewering Gingrich, citing his support for an individual mandate (“he “first advocated for the individual mandate in health care. And as recently as May of this year, he was still advocating for the individual mandate in health care”) and his encampment as a K Street influence-peddler.

She followed her debate outing with a solid performance on Face the Nation. She blasted Gingrich: “Well, I think there’s very serious concerns about Newt Gingrich as the nominee. And this is starting to get unpacked, because again we know that he has taken over $100 million. His offices are on the Rodeo Drive of Washington called K Street. He’s the king of K Street. And so for a person who has been influence peddling for over 30 years in Washington D.C. to think that Newt Gingrich is somehow an outsider, when he’s the consummate establishment insider, he’s the big government candidate just like Mitt Romney is the big government candidate, that’s not what we want in our nominee. It doesn’t even survive the falling off the chair laughing test.” Ouch.

Bachmann is an effective foil for Gingrich for several reasons. First, she consistently ties his personal defects to the conservative agenda. It’s not simply that he has flip-flopped, it is that he was still hawking the individual mandate this year. It’s not merely that he worked for Freddie Mac, it’s that he’s the poster boy for crony capitalism and the sort of pol Tea Partyers loath. And second, her own record is distinctly more conservative than his, so her critiques are not easily dismissed by Gingrich or the conservative media. And finally, she actually knows what she is talking about, in many cases when Gingrich doesn’t. (Recall her nuanced explanation of the need to continue aid to Pakistan.) If Gingrich is to be taken down, it may well be by someone who can credibly explode the myth that he is a “consistent conservative.”

Bachmann has had her tough moments in the campaign, but in comparison to Gingrich’s gaffes and missteps (e.g. attacking Rep. Paul Ryan, insisting he wasn’t a lobbyist, shooting from the hip on Palestinian nationalism) hers seem rather far and few between. She may not win Iowa, and she may not knock Gingrich from his front-runner perch. But is she garnering respect and earning a second look by voters? Absolutely. And among wary conservatives, who dread Gingrich’s nomination will doom the campaign, does Bachmann suddenly seems a safer and more reliable choice? I think so.