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The 2012 Republican presidential primary season may pit the old guard against a newer conservative movement. You can think of it as the institutional Republican Party versus the Tea Party.

The woman who started the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives is one of the politicians preparing for a presidential run. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is the focus today in our series, The Spark.

NPR's Ari Shapiro tells us what set her on the path to politics, an unlikely campaign 35 years ago.

ARI SHAPIRO: When TV news shows want somebody to enthusiastically rip into President Obama, Michele Bachmann is a reliable choice. Here, she was a guest on "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Meet the Press")

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): A second administration of Jimmy Carter wouldn't have done this country any favors. We need to make sure we don't have a second Barack Obama administration.

SHAPIRO: Comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter is one of Bachmann's favorite techniques. She recently spoke in Iowa, home to the first presidential contest in the country.

Rep. BACHMANN: Now he has us engaged in yet another third Middle Eastern war. And so, I think talk about March Madness, can anyone say Jimmy Carter?

SHAPIRO: She made a similar comparison in the early primary state of South Carolina.

Rep. BACHMANN: And he's accomplishing something that nobody thought even possible. He's making Jimmy Carter look like a Rambo tough guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Bachmann knows a thing or two about Jimmy Carter. She revealed her secret last December in Michigan.

Rep. BACHMANN: The first time I ever went to Washington, D.C., I went to dance at Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball.

(Soundbite of booing)

SHAPIRO: Michele Bachmann was raised a Democrat. She was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota, where she says Democrat gets printed on your birth certificate.

Rep. BACHMANN: And another secret you need to know: My president, I met in college, we worked on Jimmy Carter's presidential...

(Soundbite of booing)

Mr. JEROME CHRISTENSON (Deputy Editor, Winona Daily News): Definitely true. She was really pretty enthusiastic for Jimmy.

SHAPIRO: Jerome Christenson is deputy editor of the Winona Daily News in Minnesota.

Mr. CHRISTENSON: I think at the time, one of the things that might have attracted her was Carter's Baptist roots.

SHAPIRO: Christenson was Michele Bachmann's classmate at Winona State University in the 1970s. He encouraged her to run for vice president of the student senate. She won the seat.

Mr. CHRISTENSON: She was at that time, I remember as being stridently evangelical Christian, is what we apply it to now. Back then, we just called her a Jesus freak. Generally, the folks that promoted themselves as being Christian were pretty apolitical. They were friends of Jesus and that was about it.

SHAPIRO: He describes her as a bridge between students of deep Christian faith and those of political passions. Bachmann has said she left the Democratic Party after reading a Gore Vidal novel that mocked the Founding Fathers.

Mitch Penny was another classmate. He's now a police sergeant in Minnesota. And like Bachmann, Penny switched parties as he grew older.

Sergeant MITCH PENNY (Dakota County Sheriffs Department): I guess going off to college, you're young and impressionable. You want to make a mark in the world. And as we've grown older, we've paid more attention to our pocketbooks and trying to decide, are we going to be paying out too much? And if we pay out too much, you're not going to have enough for everybody.

SHAPIRO: Bachmann and her husband both moved over to the Republican Party. They volunteered for Reagan in the 1980 campaign. She received her law degree from Oral Roberts and another graduate degree from William and Mary Law School. Over the years, the Bachmanns raised five biological children and 23 foster kids.

Between work as an attorney and as a mother, Michele Bachmann did not re-enter politics full-time until the year 2000, when she won a Minnesota State Senate seat.

Political scientist Steven Schier, of Carleton College, has tracked her political career from the beginning.

Professor STEVEN SCHIER (Political Science, Carleton College): As a state senator, Michele Bachmann was primarily a cultural warrior.

SHAPIRO: She campaigned outside abortion clinics and vocally fought gay marriage. Six years after she joined the State Senate, Minnesotans elected her to Congress.

Prof. SCHIER: There is a real insurgent element throughout Michele Bachmann's career. She was never a favorite of the legislative leadership when she was a Republican state senator. She was quite willing to engage in highly public crusades about issues. Well, guess what? That's what she's been doing in Washington, as well.

SHAPIRO: Her political base loves her style, and it makes institutional Republican leaders cringe. Her rhetoric is always colorful and occasionally wrong. The nonpartisan website PolitiFact has evaluated 21 Bachmann statements. None were rated true or even mostly true. Sixteen were just false.

The night of this year's State of the Union Address, Bachmann gave Republican leaders another headache: She offered her own Tea Party response to the State of the Union, just after the official Republican response.

Rep. BACHMANN: I wand to thank the Tea Party Express and Tea Party HD for inviting me to speak this evening. I'm here at their request and not to compete with the official Republican remark.

SHAPIRO: Bachmann started the House Tea Party Caucus and she has been an enthusiastic booster of the movement.

Her style is widely compared to another Republican possible presidential contender, Sarah Palin.

Professor Schier of Carleton sees one key difference.

Prof. SCHIER: I think Bachmann has identified herself more with social conservatism throughout her career. And is I think a more undiluted social conservative, perhaps even than Sarah Palin.

SHAPIRO: In short, Bachmann is not bland. The risk of her candidacy is that the same spiciness that she uses to fire up the conservative base might burn her when she needs to appeal to a broader audience.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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