By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For months, Republicans Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin were portrayed as political twins, the fiery Tea Party favorites who would vie to lead a conservative assault on President Barack Obama.
But with her entry in the 2012 Republican nominating battle and a strong debate performance, Bachmann has quickly moved out of Palin's shadow and on to the national stage with newfound credibility.
The three-term representative from Minnesota stood out in debating a field of Republican presidential hopefuls that so far has failed to impress rank-and-file party activists.
"She showed she was as good as anybody up there, she gave the conservatives some red meat and proved she was a candidate to be reckoned with," Steve Roberts, a former Iowa state party chairman, said of Bachmann's debate performance on Monday.
"She has charisma, and if the Republican field needs anything it's someone to get people excited," Roberts said.
With 2008 vice presidential nominee Palin still on the fence about a potential run -- and viewed as an unlikely candidate by many Republicans -- Bachmann could be ready to shed the endless comparisons to the former Alaska governor.
Both are women with right-wing views and a blunt political style, but in the debate Bachmann handled questions about foreign and domestic policy with an ease and depth that has famously eluded Palin at times.
Bachmann used the forum to announce she had formally filed papers to launch her campaign for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in 2012, although she has been on the road building support for her candidacy for months.
The recent decision not to run by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the kickoff nominating contest in Iowa in 2008, opens the door for Bachmann in a state where social and religious conservatives play a big role.
"She has a chance to do very well in states with a real evangelical conservative bent like Iowa and South Carolina," Roberts said.
Bachmann still lingers in the single digits in most polls of the Republican race, a function of her low name recognition and lack of a national profile. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney also trails Obama in most surveys, but polls mean little with 17 months to go in the campaign.
A FOCUS ON IOWA
Bachmann has focused her campaign strategy on an early breakthrough in Iowa. She likes to remind state crowds that she was born there and spent her early childhood there, describing herself as Norwegian Iowan, or "Iowegian."
The rise of the Tea Party could help Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party caucus in Congress and was one of the first elected officials to court the loosely organized movement to cut spending and reduce government.
Her popularity among social conservatives also has helped her build a strong donor network. She raised more than $13 million for her 2010 House campaign, more than any other House candidate.
Bachmann reminded debate viewers at every opportunity on Monday of her big family -- she has five children and has taken in 23 foster children -- her opposition to abortion rights and strong religious views.
"I believe in the sanctity of human life," she said during the debate. "And I think the most eloquent words ever written were those in our Declaration of Independence that said it's a creator who endowed us with inalienable rights given to us from God, not from government."
But whether Bachmann can expand her support beyond the hardcore conservative Republican base will be one of the big questions for her candidacy.
She showed no signs in the debate of the gaffes and over-the-top rhetoric that have undermined her credibility. She was widely mocked in January for staring into the wrong camera during her Tea Party response to Obama's State of the Union address but she was forceful and at ease on Monday.
Her promise to Republicans that Obama would be a one-term president was popular with the debate crowd in New Hampshire, another early voting state with a fondness for insurgents but less of a conservative influence than Iowa.
"It was a good night for Bachmann," said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire state Republicans. "While most of the candidates were just treading water, she made a real impression."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)