After my extensive interview with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) conservative and liberals alike expressed disbelief. Bachmann is smart? Methodical? Informed? No way!

The New Hampshire debate, therefore, was a shock to many who had lumped her in with Sarah Palin or were unaware of her background as a lawyer, legislator and small-business woman. Gaining credibility in the eyes of the chattering class is an important step that will allow more serious coverage, consistent fundraising and expansion of her appeal beyond core Tea Partyers. But how can she jump from “credible” to first place in the presidential primary?

She has at least four tasks ahead of her. First, as many of the candidates must do, she will need to convert her searing criticism of the president into a positive agenda of her own. In the debate she told us she was against the EPA, against raising the debt ceiling and against Obamacare. But what is she for, and will that agenda sound plausible? She will need to spell out what a Bachmann budget would look like and what she would propose in lieu of Obamacare.

Second, she is up against candidates with executive experience ( Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney); she therefore would do well to highlight her own leadership and management experience. Perhaps that comes from her private-sector business. Maybe her role in helping to build the Tea Party could be used to demonstrate her organizational abilities. In short, why is the congresswoman ready to be president?

Third, she’s going to have to pass muster as a plausible commander in chief. That, once again, means more than criticizing President Obama’s messy Libya policy or his submissiveness to Vladimir Putin. It requires that she show some seriousness about both the vision and the details of a foreign policy that conservatives can embrace. Is she going to toss around troop figures for Afghanistan like Huntsman did, or spell out a thoughtful policy? She’d do well to make some high-profile speeches and trips. In short, if you want to be at the grown-ups’ table in the race you must have the stature of a commander in chief.

And finally, she’d do well to show that she can unite the party, not simply shove out of the way all but core conservatives. Can she find a tone and message that will draw in Main Street conservatives, hawks, Tea Partyers, libertarians and the rest? She has shown she can fearlessly hammer the opposition, but can she woo the undecided?

As for her stepping stones, it’s fair to say she will need to win or come very close in the Iowa caucuses. It’s the earliest state with a heavy contingent of social conservatives and Romney doesn’t seem to be serious about winning there. If she can’t beat Pawlenty and the also-rans there, where can she run?

New Hampshire may be a stretch, and she will need to decide how seriously to compete in Romney’s strongest state. If he bests her by a comfortable margin, her stature as the not-Romney will diminish quickly.

Provided she comes out strong, South Carolina is another must-win, a the contest in which she can prove her ability to draw not only from social conservatives but also other segments of the party. In other words, is she more than a Mike Huckabee?

Her most significant challenge (and vice versa) will be Texas Gov. Rick Perry, should he choose to run. He’s got the conservative credentials plus the executive record. His fundraising prowess and appeal to both social conservatives and libertarians (who like his minimalist view of the federal government’s power and role) may be enough to deprive her of votes she will need to beat Romney.

Conversely, she should welcome Huntsman to the race with open arms. The more competition Romney has for the not-core conservative votes, the better for her.

Bachmann may not be the front-runner, but of the current stable of contenders she may have the most plausible route to the nomination — provided Pawlenty doesn’t get his act together and Perry stays in Austin. That, I am certain, still shocks many in the punditocracy and the political establishment.