Michele Bachmann says the darnedest things.
Like when she suggested Democrats were responsible for swine flu epidemics. When she urged the media to investigate which members of Congress are "pro-America or anti-America." When she invoked Japanese internment camps to warn about the dangers of filling out census forms.
It was enough for Fox News host Chris Wallace to ask her (and later apologize): "Are you a flake?"
But there's a reason the Minnesota congresswoman is at the top of polls for Iowa's critical first-in-the-nation caucuses. These are voters who get up close and personal with presidential contenders, and they see a very different Bachmann than the bomb-throwing caricature often depicted on cable news.
"Bless your heart. Thank you so much for coming," Bachmann said the other day as she threw her arms around a beaming 95-year-old Melba Shank. "I feel like I'm visiting family."
"I looooove that necklace!" she gushed to another woman, as she meandered through a crowd, hugging, grabbing people by both hands, cooing over a baby and looking, sincerely, like she was having the time of her life.
Talk to Iowa voters about the petite, 55-year-old congresswoman thundering about the deficit and out-of-control spending and you invariably hear references to her Christian faith and the same adjectives.
Real. Tough. Principled.
"A politician will tell you what you want to hear, but you can see Michele Bachmann is genuine," said J. Albert Calloway, a retired pastor and conservative activist who had been courted by most of the leading Republican contenders. "She's been criticized for it, but she has a deep faith and she sticks by her guns and doesn't vacillate. I trust her."
Calloway was among the more than 4,000 Iowans, a coalition drawn heavily from evangelicals and home-school parents, who showed up at Iowa State University last weekend to elect Bachmann winner of the widely watched Ames straw poll.
That mock election ended the candidacy of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty and cemented Bachmann in the top tier of Republican candidates.
But it could prove the apex of her presidential campaign.
"She could win Iowa and South Carolina, and if that happened the momentum coming into Florida would be tremendous,'' said Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, referring to the early primary states. "But the question is whether she can sustain that lead in the face of the Rick Perry locomotive."
Even before the straw poll votes were counted, Texas Gov. Perry jumped into the race and started sucking oxygen away from Bachmann. He appeals to the same tea party and evangelical constituency but also has proven executive experience.
Pawlenty had a point about Bachmann in the Iowa debate: "In Congress her record of accomplishments and results is nonexistent. That's not good enough for our candidate for the president of the United States."
Bachmann responded by noting she introduced the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.
Not since James Garfield in 1880 has a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives been elected president. Certainly a polarizing, gaffe-prone candidate who says the Lord requires wives to "be submissive" to their husbands is not the logical choice for Republicans looking to win over swing voters.
Still, Bachmann's political skills have long been underestimated, from overwhelmingly defeating a better-funded Democratic opponent in her first House race to her recent debate performances. Alongside a line of white men, the confident Bachmann stands out with crisp answers, often personalized with her experience starting a small business and fostering children.
"That first debate did it for me. I said, 'I really like this gutsy, conservative woman,' " said Bill Diamond, a Republican fundraiser and Palm Beach council member. "She has moxie or, as she says it, 'a titanium spine.' And her personal story is so appealing: five children, fostered 23 others, started a charter school."
Bachmann, who is expected to campaign late next week in Sarasota and Orlando, has virtually no organization in Florida but plenty of grass roots support. Floridians have contributed at least $131,000 of the $3.6 million she has raised. The Naples area is the second-biggest source of fundraising behind Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"I stand behind her 100 percent, because of her ideology to shrink government. I'm one of those people who think I can probably do my own business and lifestyle better than government can, and there are a lot of us who think that way in South Florida," said Naples resident Mark Murlowski, who runs an excavating company and donated $250 to Bachmann. "And second, it's because of her family and Christian values, which I think have been lost tremendously with the existing administration."
A born-again Christian, Bachmann's faith underpins everything she does. She earned a law degree from Oral Roberts University, won a Minnesota Senate seat in 2000, became a leading abortion rights opponent and led an unsuccessful fight to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
She was tea party before the modern tea party movement existed. In Congress, she quickly won attention for over-the-top statements that tapped into the anger and fear many conservatives had with the direction of the country and what she calls the "economic Marxism" of the Obama administration.
"You're standing against tyranny, that's what you're doing," she exhorted protesters of health care reform in 2010.
Bachmann has a knack for getting her facts wrong, whether it's declaring the Revolutionary War started in Concord, N.H. (rather than Lexington and Concord, Mass.) to wishing Elvis Presley happy birthday this week on the anniversary of his death. PolitiFact.com is loaded with examples of Bachmann statements rated False and Pants on Fire.
The gaffe tendency may explain why her campaign team lately has tightly restricted reporters' access, with journalists even complaining about her security team roughing them up.
Not that it bothers Iowans making an emotional connection.
"People say she can't win, and I don't care. I'm not going to vote for the candidate I think can win — even though I do think she can win — I'm going to vote for the person who stands up for their principles and mine,'' said Calloway, the pastor in Indianola.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]