ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — One hand clutches a crisply folded U.S. flag with a concealed weapons certification protruding; the other slides discreetly into a denim coat pocket. Behind the beaming state lawmaker, a silhouette target with bullet holes square in the chest. Next to her nameplate, a "No New Taxes!" sticker.
The photo taken during Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann's initial run for Congress in 2006 captures her essence.
In Bachmann's quick rise from state lawmaker to unofficial tea party ambassador in Washington, her brazen style has kept Republican leaders on edge and appealed to those in the GOP searching for a fresh, unfettered voice. She relishes the spotlight and seldom cedes ground.
Her unpredictable edge was on display during Monday night's GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire when, out of the blue, she announced that she had filed papers to be an official candidate for the Republican nomination.
"I do what I say and I say what I mean and I don't change what I do based on a political wind or desire to necessarily move up the next ladder," Bachmann told The Associated Press this spring in an interview in which she stressed her eagerness to "take on not only the opposing party but my own party as well to do what I think is right."
Known for piercing and sometimes inaccurate commentary, she regularly aggravates political foes and provides ample fodder to late-night comics. She once falsely claimed taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for Democratic President Barack Obama's trip to India. She mistakenly identified New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots. (That key American moment occurred in Massachusetts.)
While some see her as a novelty candidate, she's also regarded as a skilled, resilient politician.
"I know people like to pick at her," said Dan Nygaard, a local Republican official during Bachmann's early days in politics. "But you can never underestimate her."
Her personal evolution is striking.
In college, Bachmann volunteered on Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign and took her maiden trip to Washington to revel in his inauguration; now she's a congressional megaphone for the conservative tea party. As a young government lawyer, Bachmann helped chase tax dodgers for the Internal Revenue Service; now she stokes worry about a swarm of IRS agents enforcing the new health insurance law she's determined to repeal. In 1999, Bachmann failed to win a local school board seat; now she's a factor in the race for the nation's highest office.
Carter's evangelical Christian beliefs attracted her, she says, while his struggles to rescue the country from a funk turned her away. Bachmann says the tax work gave her a deeper understanding of a tax code she came to regard as flawed.
Bachmann, 55, was born Michele Marie Amble in Waterloo, Iowa. Her father's engineering job led the family, including Michele and three brothers, to Minnesota when she was in elementary school. By high school, her parents had divorced. She stayed with her mother, who later remarried.
Michele Amble married college boyfriend Marcus Bachmann, a clinical therapist. The youngest of their five children will soon head off to college.
Religion has always factored heavily into Bachmann's life. She was in the last class to graduate from Oral Roberts University's now-defunct Coburn School of Law, a school dedicated to educating lawyers with Christian values. (Anita Hill, later involved in the scandal that nearly sank Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, taught a couple of Bachmann's classes.)
Until about two years ago, the Bachmanns were members of the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., part of a conservative denomination that adheres to strict doctrine and excludes women from church leadership roles. The pastor there, the Rev. Marcus Birkholz, told the AP that the family stopped attending regularly when they moved to another Twin Cities suburb.
"Our church body is very pro-life, and that has come out in Michele's position all the way along," Birkholz said. "I would say not everybody would be as outspoken as she is."
A fellow parishioner encouraged the Bachmanns to consider providing foster care. Teenage girls from troubled families — 23 in all — cycled through the Bachmann house, some as briefly as a couple of weeks and others as long as a couple of years.
Former neighbor Joanne Hood recalls Bachmann taking the lead in organizing block picnics, Christmas cookie exchanges and kiddie bike parades. Today, it pains Hood to see Bachmann mocked over verbal gaffes or demonized over her stances.
"When I hear negative things about her, I think, 'You don't know her,'" Hood said. Critics "make her out to be a ditz, and she's not."
Bachmann needed a couple of tries to make her mark in politics. After the school board loss, she toppled an incumbent Republican on her way to a state Senate win in 2000. She won an open seat in Congress six years later.
Outspoken on fiscal matters, she vaulted to congressional prominence as the tea party did. She co-founded the House Tea Party Caucus.
Some close to Bachmann privately refer to her as a "light switch." She flips on the charm to dazzle audiences or nail TV interviews, they say, then takes on a drill sergeant persona in private, where questioning her decisions draws suspicion of disloyalty. She's described as meticulous and worried about the finer details, such as soundtracks played to pump up rally crowds.
Bachmann has experienced frequent top-level staff changes in her congressional office since 2007. She's had six chiefs of staff in four years, five press secretaries, five legislative directors and three communications directors.
Bachmann discounts the staff churning as "growing pains" in an office that "moves at a fast rate of speed," and she stresses that many left for more influential jobs elsewhere.
A few prominent ex-staff members publicly support a fellow GOP presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Sean Nienow, who ran Bachmann's district office for a year before a split he called mutual, is among those reserving judgment.
"There's no question she's very conservative ideologically," said Nienow, now a state senator who mirrors Bachmann from a philosophical standpoint. "Can she win? If she were elected, how would she lead? These are questions that have yet to be answered."
Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.