WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Michele Bachmann's smooth presidential debate performance, after years of fact-muffling and squirm-inducing hyperbole, stands to make her a bigger force in the Republican Party, posing problems for GOP leaders trying to put together a deal with President Barack Obama on reducing the nation's debt.
Bachmann resolutely opposes letting the government slide even deeper into debt, a position that appeals to her constituency of no-compromise tea partiers.
Her confident, nearly error-free debate showing Monday night on stage alongside six men rippled through Republican circles back in Washington. She may have the clout now to confound GOP leaders who have labored to keep the Minnesota congresswoman positioned to help the party, rather than embarrass it. Speaker John Boehner now may have to do more than just pacify her.
Boehner rejected Bachmann's bid after last year's elections to join the leadership as the party's conference chair. She is the party's top fundraiser in the House, but Republicans haven't trusted her with the gavel of a committee or even a subcommittee.
They can't shun her so easily now.
Asked about Bachmann's debate performance, Boehner answered: "I think she did a really good job last night. She's a bright member of our caucus. It's one of the reasons why I appointed her to the Intelligence Committee."
Bachmann has been a handful for Republicans because what she has lacked in credibility she has offered in constituency. She raised $13.5 million for the 2010 election, more than Boehner or anyone else in the House. She gave $90,000 to the National Republican Campaign Committee two months before the historic elections that made Boehner speaker, according to the Federal Election Commission. She's also the founder and chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus, which counts 59 members, according to a list provided by her office.
Leaders have no choice but to pay attention when the congresswoman departs from the GOP position on the weightiest issue now facing Congress: whether to raise the $14.3 billion debt ceiling or instead put the federal government in default, with potentially devastating consequences to a fragile economy and anemic jobs market two years after the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Bachmann boasts about her penchant for bucking her party. She voted twice against the plan enacted in 2008 to unclog frozen credit markets with a $700 billion infusion of cash to banks, other financial institutions and two of the big three domestic auto producers.
"I fought behind closed doors against my own party on" the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Bachmann said. "Sometimes that's what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party."
Several Republican lawmakers and aides said Tuesday that Bachmann's debate may have opened the door to reviving her credibility if she can stay clear of exaggeration and mistakes. Certainly, some noted, her penchant for overshadowing others worked out for her Monday night when she surprised the six men she was debating by announcing she had filed the necessary papers to run for the GOP presidential nomination. And GOP leaders are more than willing to capitalize on the energy — and campaign cash — her supporters bring to their cause.
But there's a long list of Bachmann moments that have caused her fellow conservatives to cringe:
—At her November 2009 rally at the base of the Capitol, attended by Boehner and other GOP leaders, a few of her cheering supporters held signs comparing health care reform to the Holocaust, calling Obama a "Traitor to the Constitution" and asking "Ken-ya Trust Obama?" — a reference to the false claim that the president was not born in the United States.
—In 2007, she said Iran has a plan to partition Iraq and turn half of the country into a "terrorist haven." She later said she meant that Iran and other enemies of the U.S. want a divided Iraq but she knew of no actual plan.
—Two years later, she called it an "interesting coincidence" that the last swine flu outbreak in the U.S. occurred under a Democratic president, though it really happened during Republican Gerald Ford's administration.
—She once falsely claimed taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for an Obama trip to India.
—She mistakenly identified New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots. They were fired in Massachusetts.
—She accused Obama of running a "gangster government."
But for Bachmann's followers, the 2010 elections that restored Republican control of the House after four years of Democratic rule vindicated her. She appointed herself the chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House and announced her candidacy for GOP Conference chairman. "Constitutional conservatives deserve a loud and clear voice in leadership!" Bachmann declared on her Facebook page.
House Republican leaders didn't disagree, but they didn't endorse her, either. Boehner, aware of the role tea partiers played in making him speaker, endorsed no one. But his lieutenants lined up behind Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, leaving no doubt that Hensarling — and not Bachmann — was the leadership favorite for the post.
Bachmann's relationship with House GOP leaders may not matter much longer. On Tuesday, hours after the debate, she announced that she is not running for re-election to the House in 2012.
Then again, Minnesota law makes it easy for her to change her mind. If she stumbles in the primaries early next year, state law would allow her to discontinue her presidential campaign and file for re-election to the House by June 5, 2012.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Laurie Kellman has covered politics and Congress for The Associated Press since 1997.