By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a slow-starting 2012 Republican presidential field that lacks star power, Michele Bachmann is carving out a role as the polarizing Tea Party favorite with a dynamic, take-no-prisoners style.
Often compared to Sarah Palin, a woman with a similar political style, the three-term congresswoman is still the longest of White House longshots. But her hard-right views and heated rhetoric have won fans among the conservative activists who can influence early Republican nominating contests.
Bachmann's fiery attacks on President Barack Obama, Washington insiders and even her own party's leaders make the born-again Christian mom from Minnesota a hit with cable news shows and a formidable fund-raising presence.
"She is going to peel off support from conservatives who want to hear a pure voice," Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said, although like many analysts he questions her ability to expand her appeal beyond the Tea Party.
"In the end most people are going to vote for someone who could actually win a primary or the presidency, and it's unlikely Bachmann can do that," Bonjean said.
Bachmann has been helped by the absence of higher-profile conservatives like Palin and Mike Huckabee, who have the name recognition to quickly bump her aside but who seem increasingly unlikely to run for the right to challenge Obama in 2012.
That leaves the door open for an outsider to make an early splash in Iowa, which kicks off the nominating race in February. The state has a big pool of social conservatives and a history of support for insurgents like Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won Iowa in 2008 but ultimately lost the nomination.
"She appeals to Republican hearts more than Republican brains at this point, but there is room for her to make an impact in Iowa," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Bachmann says she is still considering whether to run, but she wowed the crowd at last month's conservative forum sponsored by influential Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa, who is a big fan.
'I'M ONE OF YOU'
She reminds Iowans at every opportunity that she was born in the state and spent her early years there, describing herself as a Norwegian Iowan, or "Iowegian."
"I feel like I know you. I'm one of you," Bachmann told a crowd at Pella, Iowa, Christian High School on Monday. She called for the abolition of the tax code and criticized House Republican leaders for making a weak budget deal to avert a government shutdown last week.
"We can't win ... if we don't fight," she said, vowing to make future budget negotiations even tougher.
"Barack Obama gets no money, zero money, unless we give it to him. So he can be held hostage and (Senate Democratic leader) Harry Reid can be held hostage if we don't give them money."
Bachmann is the founder of the Tea Party caucus in Congress and was one of the first elected officials to court the loosely organized movement that helped fuel Republican election gains last year with calls for spending cuts and reduced government.
But she also emphasizes an anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage agenda that appeals to social and religious conservatives, helping her build a strong donor network that raised more than $13 million for her 2010 House campaign and more than $2 million in the first three months of 2011.
Doug Phillips, 48, of Clear Lake, Iowa, drove hours to hear her on Monday and said he liked everything he heard. "She seems to have some backbone and she has a moral basis," he said.
She also has a penchant for gaffes and over-the-top rhetoric that keeps fact-checkers busy and fuels the doubts about her ability to broaden her support.
Her long stare into the wrong camera while giving the Tea Party's response to Obama's State of the Union address in January was widely lampooned, and the Washington Post called her claim Obama had run up more debt in one year than all previous U.S. presidents combined "mathematically impossible."
She once called for Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous" in fighting an energy tax and said before the 2008 election that she was worried Obama had "anti-American views."
"She is trying to carve out a niche with the Tea Party," Bonjean said. "That may work in the short term, but in the long term it would hurt her."
Bachmann will focus on making a strong showing at August's Iowa straw poll, a traditional test of organizing strength for Republican presidential contenders that has served to winnow weaker candidates from the field.
"There is time for her to make an impact at the straw poll, and if Bachmann is going to do anything she has to make an impact there," Goldford said.
(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson in Iowa; Editing by Eric Beech)