WATERLOO, Iowa — The U.S. House of Representatives is a notoriously poor launching pad for presidential ambitions, but Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who formally kicked off her campaign Monday in the town where she was born, enters the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination with several strengths.
They include deep family roots here in the first state to vote next winter, a strong conservative record that appeals to tea party activists hungry for a champion against both major parties in Washington, and a commanding speaking style that rallies the faithful and helps her stand out in the pack.
"In a field of candidates with a whole bunch of beige," said veteran Iowa political analyst Dennis Goldford, "she's neon orange."
Those strengths already have helped her, first in a June 13 New Hampshire debate where she won favorable reviews, and in a new Iowa poll Sunday showing her neck and neck in the state with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Bachmann, 55, formally launched her campaign Monday with a salute to small-town values and a vow to vanquish President Barack Obama.
"I stand here in the midst of many friends and many family members to announce formally my candidacy for president of the United States," Bachmann said to cheers from about a hundred supporters in this town where she was born.
"I want to bring a voice, your voice, to the White House, just as I have brought your voice to the halls of Congress."
Bachmann didn't mention any of her Republican rivals. Instead, she used the kickoff to indict Obama for what she called a failure of leadership at home and abroad.
She ripped him for high unemployment, for piling up government debt, for high gas prices, and for failing to reverse the crisis in housing that's caused waves of foreclosures and left the dream of home ownership "distant" to too many Americans.
"We cannot continue to rack up debt on the backs of future generations," she said.
"We can't afford an unconstitutional health plan that costs too much and is worth so littlecan't afford four more years of failed leadership at home and abroadfour more years of millions of Americans out of work or in jobs that pay too little to support their families."
"We can't afford," she added, "four more years of Barack Obama."
Bachmann believes she is the one candidate who can appeal to all three branches of the Republican Party — conservatives on national defense, economics and social issues.
Her supporters agreed, saying Romney is too liberal because he passed a state health care law with an individual mandate; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is too quiet; and the rest of the field too unknown.
"She's a real contender," said Robbi Sullivan, an office worker from Cedar Falls, Iowa.
"Iowa conservatives don't like or trust Romney, and don't know Tim Pawlenty," added Patricia Smith of Waterloo.
Bachmann didn't mention some of the issues that drive social conservatives in the state, such as abortion or gay marriage. "She is so understood as a religious conservative that she doesn't have to talk about it," said Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "They already know she's one of them."
What's helpful to her in more conservative states such as Iowa and South Carolina, though, could weigh her down in more libertarian or moderate states such as New Hampshire.
Bachmann's record also will come under more scrutiny as she emerges as a top-tier candidate. The Los Angeles Times, for example, reported Sunday that her family has received federal money for their business and farm despite her vocal criticism of federal spending.
Also, her frequent appearances on cable TV that helped hone her communication skills also have yielded comments that opponents could use to challenge her credibility — such as suggesting loyalty investigations for members of Congress, or saying incorrectly that an Obama trip to India cost $200 million a day, and that the Great Depression started in 1933 under Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, not in 1929 under Republican Herbert Hoover.
Finally, there's history: Only one sitting member of the House ever has been elected president — James Garfield in 1880.