ESTHERVILLE (AP) — The cornfields edging two-lane Iowa Highway 9 fade to a sunbaked blur as Rep. Michele Bachmann’s blue-and-white campaign coach rolls on, bound for a “town hall” meeting with voters in the basement of a public library 25 minutes down the road.
She pauses just once for a query that seems to catch her by surprise: What’s the public’s biggest misconception about her?
“Oh, that’s a good question,” she says, the brassiness in her voice softening as she looks to a pair of campaign aides.
“One thing people will say to me at these town hall conventions ... they’ll say ‘the media doesn’t tell the story of who you are. They make you two-dimensional, a caricature.’”
Bachmann has a point. The choreographed repetition of modern presidential campaigns can turn the most personable candidate into an endless loop of talking points. But any close observer of Bachmann’s political career would be hard-pressed to dismiss her as two-dimensional.
At a time when voters accuse politicians of being difficult to pin down on issues, Bachmann proudly draws herself with hard lines and sharp edges. First in Minnesota and later in Washington, Bachmann has alienated some members of her own party nearly as much as Democrats.
On this trip through a conservative corner Bachmann must win to resuscitate her candidacy in Iowa’s January caucus, she has another chance to make her case and offer voters a window into a political life that, now clouded by time and rhetoric, remains a singular story.
Bachmann calls herself an accidental politician. But both supporters and critics say that’s selling her short.
Campaigning across Iowa, Bachmann frequently reminds voters she is a native.
But that does not explain the route she has traveled: from Waterloo, a manufacturing city of 68,000 where she was born 55 years ago in a Democratic-voting family with union roots, to congresswoman from St. Paul’s exurbs whose personal and political life have been shaped by her embrace of evangelical Christianity and later, a highly combative brand of conservatism.
Bachmann’s family left Iowa when she was 12 and her father, an engineer, took a job in Minnesota. Her parents divorced two years later. Bachmann’s father moved to California. Her mother found work as a store clerk and bank teller, but money was tight. The family managed by rigorously watching spending and relying on the generosity of relatives, says Bachmann’s brother, Paul Amble, a Connecticut psychiatrist six years her junior.
“I just remember taking trips down to Iowa where my grandmother lived, and we’d come back with huge Tupperware things full of food,” Amble says.
The family attended a Lutheran church. But Bachmann says her life was transformed at 16 by a religious awakening. In a speech this year at Liberty University, Bachmann recalled entering church one night with three friends after mistakenly hearing there was a party inside.
“When we got up to the front of the church, all of us under the power of the Holy Spirit, were called to our knees and we knelt in front of the altar and we started in prayer and the Holy Spirit convicted me and touched my heart and that of my three friends and one thing that I understood at that moment is that I didn’t know Jesus,” she said.
In college, Bachmann met husband Marcus (in a vision, God told her to marry him, she says). After law school, the Bachmanns returned to Minnesota, eventually settling in Stillwater, whose historic downtown along the St. Croix River is a popular shopping and dining destination. Marcus opened a Christian mental health counseling practice nearby.
Michele Bachmann tells audiences she began working as a “tax litigation attorney.” But the outspoken critic of big government avoids talking about the specifics of her job as an Internal Revenue Service lawyer pursuing people who did not pay their taxes.
The couple sent their five children to a private Christian school. But over the years their colonial became home to 23 foster children who attended public schools. Bachmann says she became dismayed by one girl’s high school math assignment to color a poster.
In 1993, Bachmann joined a group starting one of Minnesota’s first publicly funded charter schools. But it immediately became the center of controversy, with some parents and teachers complaining founders were trying to incorporate religious teachings.
Bob Beltrame, a member of the school’s parental advisory board, says teachers complained that Bachmann and another school board member were sitting in on classes and questioning them about their methods. He recalls a phone conversation with Bachmann that fall discussing the school’s approach.
“I remember one thing she said. I’ll never forget it. She said, ‘You know, if you really read the scientific literature you’ll find that today there’s a lot more evidence of creationism than there is the theory of evolution,’” Beltrame says.
The controversy peaked that December, when the school’s CEO and board members including Bachmann resigned. But her interest in education and policy was far from over.
When Bachmann ran for a House seat in 2006, she drew criticism after a video surfaced in which she told worshippers at a church in her district that God “has focused like a laser beam in his reasoning on this race,” and had instructed her to run.
But in a year when Democrats took control of the House, Bachmann won handily.
“I’m coming here as a conservative,” she told reporters. “I’m not coming here for the purpose of controversy.”
In Washington, Bachmann emerged as one of the most outspoken members of Congress, criticizing Obama’s “anti-American views” during the 2008 presidential campaign. Republican leaders kept her at arm’s length, despite her fundraising prowess, supporting a rival’s bid for a House leadership role.
Bachmann, though, found her own soapbox, embracing the tea party movement and delivering a response on its behalf to Obama’s State of the Union address in January, moments after the Republican Party’s official response.
And when conservative commentator Glenn Beck staged a “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall in Aug. 2010 but did not invite Bachmann, she staged her own rally immediately afterward.
It was a reminder of Bachmann’s fierce will, says Ron Carey, a former chair of the Minnesota Republican Party who served as Bachmann’s chief of staff in 2010.
On the road, Bachmann tells voters she will push to elect “13 like-minded senators,” giving her a filibuster-proof majority to push through changes as president.
As her bus nears Estherville, she is asked what that says about her vision of leadership for a country whose increasingly fractured politics have left many voters mourning the seeming inability of leaders to find compromise.
“My plan is not to fail. My plan is to succeed,” Bachmann says.
Later, about 60 voters fill the basement of the Estherville library to hear the candidate and ask for autographs.
“It’s going to be a lot of tough love,” Bachmann promises if she’s elected president. “You’re going to be hearing screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth from Washington, D.C., all the way to Estherville.”