By James B. Kelleher
INDEPENDENCE, Iowa (Reuters) - Only two weeks after announcing she was seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann is already looking like the candidate to beat in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses in February.
The Minnesota congresswoman is tapping into the same vein of voter discontent at government spending that drove Republican victories at midterm elections last year.
Bachmann, 55, is running neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney among Republicans in Iowa. But Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has signaled that he will not campaign hard in the state so he can concentrate his energies elsewhere.
"Iowa's is hers to lose," said Brent Parks, 45, an accounting software salesman who chairs the state's Buchanan County Republicans.
Beyond Bachmann's credentials as a fiscal hawk, the local-born former tax lawyer ticks the boxes for social conservatives who back her opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
"She's been a leader on all the big issues," said Mark Torgerson, 35, a high school math teacher in the town of Independence, a few miles from Bachmann's birthplace in Waterloo.
Unlike fellow Tea Party backer Sarah Palin to whom she is often compared, Bachmann holds office as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and has a recent record of conservative votes on major national issues.
"I trust her more than any of the other ones to stick to her conservative values and push the conservative agenda by lowering the debt ceiling, by lowering the spending, by getting the social agenda passed with the marriage amendment passed," said Richard Wearmouth, pastor of the Christian Life Church in Independence.
"The conservative basic policies, she'll push to the nth degree," he said.
Iowa has played an outsized role in the picking of U.S. presidents. In 2008, Barack Obama's victory here over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic caucuses was a turning point in his presidential victory.
But even if she did win the Iowa caucuses, that would be no guarantee Bachmann could go on to successes in other early voting states like New Hampshire.
Mike Huckabee won the Republican caucuses here in 2008, upsetting John McCain and Romney, the party's apparent front-runners. But within two months, Huckabee was out the race.
Independence played a small part in the Tea Party surge last year that stripped Democrats of their control of the U.S. Congress and also gave Republicans victories in state legislative and gubernatorial races.
Voters in the 23rd District in the Iowa House of Representatives threw out the Democratic incumbent and replaced him with Tea Party-approved Republican Dan Rasmussen at the statehouse in Des Moines.
Republicans in the midwestern state have become increasingly conservative, an advantage for Bachmann.
Referring to the list of Republican aspirants, pastor Wearmouth declared it "the best lineup for conservatives in many, many years. The majority are very conservative. Not moderate but conservative. That's a wonderful change."
But he said Bachmann was head and shoulders above the others.
A poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper in June found Bachmann in a statistical dead heat with Romney. The survey was conducted before Bachmann officially kicked off her campaign in Iowa, which has drawn big enthusiastic crowds.
But long-time Iowa political observers, and some Republican activists, say they are not sure Bachmann's current momentum can last.
David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, thinks her current popularity is driven by media coverage of the gaffe-prone candidate.
That, he says, has pushed up her name recognition among conservative-leaning Republicans in Iowa but will do nothing to increase the appeal among more moderate primary voters in places like New Hampshire.
"I think people are also responding to the media attention -- and she got a lot of it ahead of the Des Moines Register poll."
Republican presidential rivals are also sure to step up criticism. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty this week questioned Bachmann's record in Congress, calling it "non-existent."
Former Alaska governor Palin and Texas Governor Rick Perry are two Republican heavyweights who could still step into the presidential nomination race and give Bachmann a serious challenge in Iowa.
It is unclear whether Palin will enter, although Perry is reckoned to be preparing a campaign.
Not all Tea Party activists are impressed with Bachmann's campaign.
Judd Saul, a Tea Party activist from Cedar Falls, said he's been put off by her early rallies in the state, which have featured lots of sign-waving supporters and reporters but were short on the kind of one-one-one access to the candidate that Iowans normally enjoy.
"Bachmann's campaign is funky," Saul, 31, said after watching Ron Paul at one event and waiting for Rick Santorum to appear at another.
"Every other candidate that comes though here, you get private time with them, you get to talk with them, you get to ask some questions.
"With Bachmann's campaign, here's the media circus, she speaks to you, she's out. Boom she's in. Boom she's out. Stump speech. There's no sit and answer questions," Saul said.