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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Now, one member of Congress who has promised to vote against any increase in the federal debt ceiling is Minnesota's Michele Bachmann. She's become a serious contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination in just a few weeks of campaigning. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been in South Carolina, which will host the first Southern primary of 2012. The winner in South Carolina has gone on to win every Republican nomination since 1980.

DON GONYEA: This Bachmann event was billed as a Rally in the Alley on a narrow street in the small town of Aiken.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the next president of the United States - Michele Bachmann.

GONYEA: The crowd wasn't big - about 150 on a hot humid Tuesday afternoon. Bachmann began by going after the president on the debt ceiling.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota, Presidential Candidate): It's a pleasure to be able to be here today. And I just wanted to ask all of you here: How many of you want me to go back to Washington D.C. today, and let the politicians have more authority to borrow more money that we don't have?

CROWD: No.

GONYEA: Bachmann says she's a no-vote on raising the debt ceiling, no matter what kind of deal is struck. She's using these early weeks of her candidacy to drive home her commitment to slash government spending.

But she's hardly neglecting the non-fiscal issues. This is from an appearance this week hosted by the Christian Chamber of Commerce in Columbia.

Unidentified Man #2: Just curious if you could tell us what your personal faith, where you stand today on that.

Rep. BACHMANN: Well, thank you much. I'm a believer in Jesus Christ. I was born into a family where we were Lutherans. And I'm sure that the Gospel was preached from the pulpit, I just didn't hear it.

GONYEA: She then went on to describe how, at age 16 she gave her heart to Jesus Christ.

After Bachmann spoke, Christian Chamber of Commerce member Bruce Snell closed the event with a prayer, asking the Almighty to watch over her.

Mr. BRUCE SNELL (Member, Christian Chamber of Commerce): Lord, I ask that right now that, Lord, amidst all the distractions that you protect our sister and her family from all of the attacks. And that, Lord, and I pray right now that you strengthen and open our spiritual eyes and ears, and our hearts

GONYEA: There have been controversies, including reports about clinics her Bachmann's husband runs where, among other services, homosexuals are counseled on how to become heterosexual. And there was this week's story on the conservative Daily Caller website that said Bachmann suffers from debilitating migraine headaches. That prompted her to read a statement to reporters in Aiken.

Rep. BACHMANN: I have prescribed medication that I take on occasion whenever symptoms arise. And they keep my migraines under control. But Id like to be abundantly clear: My ability to function effectively, will not affect my ability to serve as commander-in-chief.

GONYEA: Political Scientist Adolphus Belk Jr., at Winthrop University, says evangelicals still dominate Republican politics in South Carolina, and that Bachmann clearly appeals to them. But he says it doesnt stop there.

Professor ADOLPHUS BELK Jr. (Political Science, Winthrop University): I also think that it's very clear that she speaks to fiscal conservatives and people that are concerned about the overall financial well-being of the nation going forward - Tea Party Republicans and Tea Party-leaning independents certainly. There's some work that will have to be done on national security issues.

GONYEA: And that's another key group, given how many South Carolinians serve or have served in the military.

Prof. BELK, JR.: Right now, South Carolinians are trying to get a feel for the Republican field.

GONYEA: That describes 56-year-old business owner Cynthia Minter who was at one Bachmann appearance this week.

Ms. CYNTHIA MINTER: I think I'm just so neutral right now that, to be honest, Im here to see Michele to learn more.

GONYEA: Retired Minister Leroy Dodson, however, was ready to commit.

Reverend LEROY DODSON: And I told my wife when I got up, I said whatever she runs for I would vote for her. 'Cause I mean she's very positive.

GONYEA: But youve made your mind up already?

Rev. DODSON: Oh, absolutely. Already.

GONYEA: Dodson's tone is not unusual. Bachmann devotees are very enthusiastic. And she hopes they'll go forth and multiply in a state that has launched so many GOP winners in the past.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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