Sarah Palin (left) is often compared to Michele Bachmann. But Bachmann has shown herself to be more politically savvy than the 2008 vice presidential nominee in recent months. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Update, 4:43 pm: Several readers point out another key difference between Bachmann and Palin — their approach to criticism. Bachmann, at least so far in the campaign, has shown a willingness to acknowledge mistakes she makes on the campaign trail. Palin is notorious for doubling-down on perceived missteps, typically blaming a biased media for not telling the whole story.

Original Post

Sarah Palin is in Iowa today. Michele Bachmann announced her candidacy there on Monday. For reporters, that’s a coincidence(?) impossible to resist; scads of stories are being produced comparing the two women.

The comparisons between Palin and Bachmann are, at one level, apt. Both are women (duh) who align most closely with social conservatives. Both are outspoken defenders of their chosen causes whose rhetoric occasionally gets them into hot water.

But, that’s where the similarities end. And, over the past few months, Bachmann has proven that she is different in important ways from Palin — differences that make her the more viable of the two when it comes to the 2012 presidential race.

Let’s look at the critical elements that differentiate Bachmann from Palin:

* Outside the inner circle: After the 2008 election, Palin was the hottest commodity in Republican politics. She briefly sought to expand her decidedly narrow inner circle — hiring on the likes of GOP fundraiser Becki Donatelli — but those relationships quickly frayed, leaving Palin on a bit of a strategic island. (Palin’s closest political adviser, according to everyone familiar with her, is her husband Todd.) Contrast that with Bachmann who brought in longtime GOP operative Ed Rollins to manage her presidential campaign and hired a well-regarded pollster she hadn’t worked with before in Ed Goeas. To be sure, Bachmann still has some longtime loyalists — former chief of staff Andy Parrish and fundraiser Guy Short — in her inner circle. But her willingness to look outside of her comfort zone for people with know-how at the presidential level is something Palin has never exhibited.

* Not debate-able: Palin has never squared off with other top Republicans in a debate format. Bachmann has — and she shined in the New Hampshire debate earlier this month. The ability to stand on a stage and look like you belong matters in a presidential race. Palin seems largely content to communicate with her supporters — and wade into political and policy fights — via Facebook and Twitter, two decidedly one-way conversations. Ultimately in an presidential primary (or any race), you have to show and prove to voters why you and not the other guy (or gal) should be party’s nominee. Bachmann has shown a willingness to put herself on the line — and win. Palin, since the 2008 race, hasn’t.

* The importance of Iowa: Every candidate needs a state early in the nominating process where she (or he) can score a win. That’s Iowa for Bachmann. Not only is she already in a statistical dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a new Des Moines Register poll but she was also born in the state — a fact she mentioned no fewer than 400 times in her announcement speech on Monday. (Ok, it was slightly less than 400 but not by much.) Palin doesn’t sit in the pole position in any early state and, in a Register poll conducted in late February, her approval rating in Iowa had slipped from its heights in November 2009. Her situation in New Hampshire may actually be worse. Palin’s visit to the state earlier this month was her first since late 2008 and polling reflects a lack on enthusiasm for her. In a May WMUR/CNN survey, Palin took just five percent in a hypothetical 2012 New Hampshire primary ballot — well behind the frontrunning Romney who received 33 percent.

* Reaching out, not doubling down: The confounding thing for many political strategists who have watched Palin over the past few years is her seeming refusal to reach beyond her core supporters. The result is that people who love Palin really love her but that is not a large enough group to win her a single state much less the GOP nomination. Bachmann has similarly fervent support among those who identify themselves as “very conservative” politically but, rhetorically at least, seems to understand the need to grow beyond that base. In her announcement speech, Bachmann bear-hugged the tea party but she also sought to redefine what it meant to support the movement; “It’s made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who’ve never been political a day in their life, libertarians, Republicans,” said Bachman. “We’re people who simply want America back on the right track again.”

* Tabula rasa: The simple fact is that every Republican knows Palin and a significant chunk of them don’t like her. In a March Washington Post/ABC News poll, just five percent of respondents said they had no opinion of Palin. Of those who did have an opinion, 58 percent felt favorably while 37 percent felt unfavorably. Compare those numbers to Bachmann’s showing in a new Associated Press poll. Roughly one in three Republican didn’t know enough about Bachmann to have an opinion about her but among those that did 54 percent saw her in a favorable light while just 13 percent viewed her unfavorably. Those numbers mean that Bachmann has considerable room to grow as she gets better known to GOP voters. Palin, on the other hand, is, today, where she would likely end up by the time people start voting next year. There are a significant number of people who like her and a smaller but growing group that don’t. Because she is almost universally known, it’s hard to imagine her image changing in any meaningful way over the next year no matter what she does.