For Part 2 of this interview, click here.

I was prepared to meet Rep. Michele Bachmann’s media image — extreme and excitable. After all, if you knew the three-term congresswoman only from her duels with Chris Matthews or her firebrand speeches to the base, you would be convinced she is sort of an overcaffeinated Sarah Palin. But the comparison to another conservative woman is both unfair (Is Mike Pence compared to Jim DeMint?) and inapt. If you thought George W. Bush was “misunderestimated,” spend some time with Bachmann.

She was running late due to a floor vote, but when I was ushered through the interior hallway to her office she was standing with the door open, like a gracious neighbor. Her features are less severe in person. Her voice is rather quiet and calm. Throughout the interview a single question kept running through my mind: THIS is Michele Bachmann?

She is certainly every bit the fiscal stalwart, but her practical streak is apparent. Are fiscal conservatives winning the budget debate? “We ARE winning the battle,” she says matter-of-factly, because the agenda is based “on the message that came out of the 2010 election.” Referring to Sen. Harry Reid’s defense of NPR, she deadpans, “Cowboy poetry is not what they voted for.”

Her own priority is “defunding ObamaCare,” which she describes as President Obama’s “signature issue.” She emphasizes that on this and other fiscal issues, it “is beneficial to have pressure from our side.” The Democrats certainly have no shortage of advocates hectoring for more spending. But, showing her practical side, she is clear that her aim for the 2011 budget is to “get the best deal possible.”

The real action will come when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rolls out his budget plan. But, making news, she tells me that the hardcore conservative Republican Study Committee will have its own budget. The 2012 budget, she says, should put us on a “path to a balanced budget.” That means “real cuts” in spending, she explains, not just a reduced rate of growth. She understands that the 2012 budget will be where the going gets tough. “And if we think we have battles now,” she warns, then watch out for the 2012 budget battles. She is not shy about taking on entitlement programs. She argues, “Sixty-five percent of the budget is entitlements. ObamaCare is a new entitlement.” She thinks that at precisely the wrong time, “when we can least afford it,” ObamaCare will obligate not only more federal outlays but also more state spending. The impact of Obama’s legislation will be “at many levels,” she cautions.

Will ObamaCare be the top issue in 2012? She says precisely, “It is a top issue. But she also offers an interesting critique of Obama. “He hasn’t correctly diagnosed the economy,” she explains. It’s not surprising to her then that his policies didn’t work and “he has lost credibility.” She thinks the same is true on Libya. He dithered,” she argues. “Then he failed to explain our strategy.” And so she anticipates that Obama will lose more credibility. On Libya, she twists the knife (but calmly and without acrimony), arguing that Obama’s address on Monday will come to be seen as Obama’s “mission accomplished” speech. (Echoing fiscal hawks, she is concerned that the United States already has its hands full with military commitments in Japan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and debt at home.) She calls it a “third war.” She says firmly, “You can call it a kinetic military action,” but it’s a war, one that she thinks Obama has not made the case for in convincing terms.

As for her own aspirations, she says a decision will be made in early summer. Any later would impair her ability to participate in the Iowa straw poll, she explains. So far she says she has been “encouraged” by the support she has seen. What will be the deciding factor? I expect her to give some variation of the “If no one else is up to it, I will” formulation. But she talks about the need to have “fire in the belly.” She says with a smile, “I need to know that I know” that her heart is in it. Her methodical approach is at odds with the media image of an impulsive pol. “We’ll have a plan. In everything I’ve done I’ve had a plan,” she recalls. In setting up a business, in managing a tax law practice and in parenting — she says she has always operated that way. Noting her extraordinary foster care efforts (as well as mothering her biological children), she observes, “You don’t have 28 kids without a plan.”

And unlike Palin, who complains about the “lamestream media,” Bachmann says of her coverage: “I really don’t bother with it. The greatest preparation was growing up with three brothers.” She adds that the criticism “really rolls off my back.” We come back to the subject later in the interview, and again she doesn’t take the bait: “The biased left-wing media does what it wants. That’s not going to define me or hamper me.” She observes, “No politician was more maligned than Ronald Reagan.”

In part two of the interview, Bachmann talks about the Tea Party movement and her experience raising 28 children.