STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's go to the Republican side of that contest. Just a month or two ago, many experts did not take Michele Bachmann that seriously as a presidential contender. Now her strong performance in debates and speeches is making her stand out. She's visiting all the early voting states. She started in Iowa. She is South Carolina today, and yesterday Bachmann was in New Hampshire, where she spoke with NPR's Mara Liasson.
Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Live free or die! Yay!
MARA LIASSON: At a backyard event in Raymond, New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann is poised, polished and slinging the applause lines as she attacks President Obama.
Rep. BACHMANN: In February 2009, the president gave an interview and in that interview he said, if I fail to turn the economy around by the third year, then we will have a precedent for being a one-term president. What - do you think we should take him at his word?
Unidentified People: Yeah.
Rep. BACHMANN: I do too.
LIASSON: Bachmann sells herself as the complete Republican package: conservative on social, fiscal and national security issues. She boasts she's got a backbone made of titanium, and she touts her anti-establishment credentials.
Ms. BACHMANN: In my wallet, there's no card that says good ole boys' club. I take on the opposition party, but I take on my own party as well, because I believe it is principle over party. That's what comes first.
LIASSON: In Washington, Bachmann has a reputation as a rhetorical bomb thrower. But to conservatives like Wendy Dowdy, she's a conviction politician.
Ms. WENDY DOWDY: I didn't even look if I had a watch on during her speech. I mean, it wasn't even a speech. It was like wow - really, wow.
LIASSON: Brandon Stauber is an independent who plans to vote in the Republican primary next year.
Mr. BRANDON STAUBER: I was not really sure if she's ready for prime time, being only a three-term congressperson. She was very polished. She definitely has her act together.
LIASSON: To Stauber, Bachmann is more appealing than the man who's running way ahead in the polls here.
Mr. STAUBER: Definitely more lively than Mitt Romney, and has nicer hair too.
LIASSON: That's saying a lot.
Mr. STAUBER: Yes.
LIASSON: Bachmann's base is in Iowa, where she was born and where the Des Moines Register poll has her even with Mitt Romney. The challenge for Bachmann is to avoid the fate of another polished populist candidate: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who captured the evangelical vote and won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but then ran out of steam.
In an interview yesterday, Bachmann says that won't happen to her.
Ms. BACHMANN: We observed the last race, and we wanted to make sure that we laid groundwork in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa. And we've spent about equal amount of time in all three states. We will be running a 50-state race, and that's what we'll have to do.
LIASSON: Two things are different already. Huckabee's rise in Iowa came late and he never had time to raise a lot of money. Bachmann's already the number one fundraiser in the House. And yesterday the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which was Huckabee's nemesis in 2008, gave Bachmann its highest rating.
Bachmann's been toning down her rhetoric as she prepares to compete on a national stage and prove to voters that her lack of executive experience isn't a problem. She said yesterday there were things she wishes she'd said better and some facts she's gotten wrong. She no longer says that President Obama has anti-American views, for instance, but she won't take back this comment about the Obama administration...
Ms. BACHMANN: I do believe that this is a gangster government. It's gangster when you have the federal government deciding which car dealerships can stay in business and which can't, when they literally pull the rug out from people and they have family-owned businesses for 70 years or more. That's wrong.
LIASSON: Today, Bachman will be campaigning in South Carolina, where she should find a natural base of conservative Christian voters.
Katon Dawson is the former South Carolina state Republican Party chair.
Mr. KATON DAWSON (Former Chair, South Carolina Republican Party): She brings a very strong entrepreneurial, anti-tax, smaller government message to the field, and I find her very refreshing. But until you have a final field, and whether Governor Perry gets in is the talk on the ground here, I think it's a very fluid environment - but anybody that discounts Michele Bachmann's chances I think is at their own peril.
LIASSON: Texas Governor Rick Perry is the 800-pound gorilla on the sidelines of this race. If he gets in, he would fill the same political space as Bachmann: Tea Party hero, small government conservative, evangelical Christian. But Michele Bachmann is the conservative woman of the moment, and right now the leading alternative to the front-runner, Mitt Romney.
Ms. BACHMANN: New Hampshire can do it. Thank you, New Hampshire. Thank you.
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News.