Reporting from Washington — When Michele Bachmann took the podium at a rally against health legislation this month, she dutifully hit the highlights of the Republican argument against the bill: It's too expensive, it will depress wages, it punishes the middle class.
But because she is Michele Bachmann, she did not stop there.
In less than eight minutes, the Minnesota congresswoman told the cheering crowd of conservative activists that the Democratic healthcare bill isn't just bad policy -- it's unconstitutional. She invoked Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," though it memorializes a suicide mission. She dissed the United Nations, recalled Elian Gonzalez's journey from Cuba, and offered this holiday greeting:
"That is our wish for fellow citizens here in the United States -- for freedom, not for government enslavement!"
The crowd roared.
In two terms in Congress, Bachmann has often used hyperbole and political theatrics to make headlines. And recently, she has achieved a rare feat: winning the trust of the anti-incumbent, small-government "tea party" activists who distrust most elected officials. And that puts Bachmann in a position of rising influence.
Republicans fear that the tea party conservatives will run their own candidates for office and drain votes from the GOP. In two recent polls, more voters had a high opinion of the tea party movement than of the Republican Party (and in one poll, higher than of the Democratic Party). The movement is blamed for tipping one House race already, a special election in upstate New York last month, to the Democrats.
Now, as the tea party crowd tries to organize and raise money for next year's Senate and House elections, Republican leaders are taking note of Bachmann's special rapport with the groups.
A new GOP website aimed at rebutting President Obama's jobs proposal, which features only a few lawmakers, includes Bachmann along with Republican leaders. And recently, the Republican National Committee put Bachmann on a conference call to discuss healthcare with a host of grass-root groups, including tea party activists.
"There's no question that congresswoman Bachmann fires up the base," said LeRoy Coleman, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "She's a powerful and galvanizing voice for this party."
That is not how all Republicans see Bachmann, 53, who once said that she was "hot for Jesus" and is quick to call Obama's governing plans "socialism." Some want to keep her at arm's length.
When Bachmann declared that she would ignore almost all questions on the census form, calling it an unconstitutional effort to collect personal data, three fellow House Republicans called her stance "illogical, illegal and not in the best interest of our country."
When former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last year crossed party lines and endorsed Obama, he cited Bachmann's suggestion that Obama held "anti-American views," calling it "nonsense."
And in a survey this month by National Journal magazine, Republican members of Congress named Bachmann as being among the colleagues they would "most like to mute."
But her over-the-top comments have also turned Bachmann into a favorite of a conservative movement that believes the GOP has wandered from its traditional values. She is one of just two elected officials scheduled to speak at a national tea party convention in February. (The other represents Tennessee, where the convention will be held.)
"She can be derided by the political establishment and the media for being too abrasive. . . . But those people aren't trusted by members of the tea party," said Joe Wierzbicki, a spokesman for the California-based Tea Party Express. "Michele Bachmann is."
As an ambassador to the activists, Bachmann has tried to tamp down talk among tea party groups that they should form their own political party.
"I think this coalition will fit under a tent that's literally fashioned out of the parchment of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," she said in an interview. "I think that what we'll do is emphasize the issues of commonality.
"The greater good right now is to defeat the move toward collectivism, as being advocated at a breakneck speed by the Obama administration," she said.
As a tea party confidant, Bachmann is in scarce company. Activists consider former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to be a leader, and TV show host Glenn Beck, but few elected officials.
"The people within this movement have been very protective of this movement," said Amy Kremer, a founder of a national group called Tea Party Patriots. "They have not wanted to be hijacked by the Republican Party." Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, learned as much April: As he made overtures to a Chicago tea party meeting, the group announced that the chairman was not welcome. And U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was booed when he took the stage at a summer rally.