WATERLOO, Iowa — Republican Michele Bachmann officially launched her White House bid on Monday, casting herself as hard-charging conservative capable of carrying the party into the 2012 election over a crowded field of GOP rivals so far treading lightly around the tea party favorite.
On a sun-splashed morning in the yard of an historic mansion in Waterloo, the three-term Minnesota congresswoman insisted the nation can't afford another four years of President Barack Obama and railed against debt, joblessness and the president's sweeping health care law. She argued that she has the appeal to capture the GOP nod and oust the Democratic president.
"Americans agree that our country is in peril today and we must act with urgency to save it," Bachmann told the crowd of family, friends and supporters. "And Americans aren't interested in affiliation; they are interested in solutions, and leadership that will tell the truth. And the truth is that Americans are the solution and not the government."
The backdrop served as a powerful reminder of Bachmann's connection to Iowa and its importance in the presidential sweepstakes. Waterloo is Bachmann's birthplace and the historic Snowden House once was home to the Waterloo Women's Club. A recent Iowa poll shows Bachmann essentially tied with national front-runner Mitt Romney, signaling she's a clear caucus favorite.
Bachmann is betting that her standing with the tea party — she created the Tea Party Caucus in Congress — and affinity with evangelical Christians will deliver a win in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
"I seek the presidency not for vanity, but because America is at a crucial moment and I believe that we must make a bold choice if we are to secure the promise of the future," she said.
Republican opponents have yet to directly engage Bachmann, but recognize they ignore her at their own peril. Her candidacy presents a particular challenge to fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, the state's former governor.
Asked about Bachmann on NBC's "Today" show on Monday, Pawlenty demurred but did focus on his record. "I've actually led in an executive position and moved the needle on conservative results," said Pawlenty, who is running radio ads in Iowa that end with the slogan: "Results, Not Rhetoric."
A Des Moines Register poll published Sunday showed Bachmann and Romney far ahead in Iowa of Pawlenty, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and businessman Herman Cain.
Possible late entrants include Texas Gov. Rick Perry and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who was heading to Iowa on Tuesday for a screening of a documentary about her.
In her speech, Bachmann steered clear of specific proposals she'd advance as president, a day after suggesting that the concerns over averting a debt crisis were "scare tactics" that could be solved by paying only the interest on U.S. obligations while lawmakers work on a deal to cut spending as part of a new debt ceiling. The idea has been dismissed as unworkable by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
She reminisced about her childhood in a Democratic household — and her own volunteer work for Democratic President Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign. But she made clear her allegiances long ago shifted.
"The liberals, and to be clear I am not one of those, want you to believe the tea party movement is just the right wing of the Republican Party," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
After the formal Iowa kickoff, she headed on a two-day swing through New Hampshire and South Carolina, other early voting states. She intends to return to Iowa this weekend.
Bachmann, 55, has many wondering if the edgy side that built her into a prominent conservative will be the one she shows on the presidential campaign trail. Her say-anything approach has earned her a loyal following but also plenty of guff from detractors who see her as a fringe politician prone to missteps.
In March, she famously flubbed Revolutionary War geography. She told a group of students and conservative activists in Manchester, N.H. "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord." Those first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire. She later admitted she made a mistake.
For this campaign, she has surrounded herself with no-nonsense veterans of national politics, some of whom have deep ties to the political establishment Bachmann typically eschews.
Bachmann's political climb has been swift, brushing off a school board race defeat just 12 years ago and moving rapidly from Minnesota's state Senate to Congress, where she's willingly taken on Democrats and those in GOP leadership. She's staunchly conservative on social issues, too, calling for more abortion restrictions and constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage.
Bachmann has played up a softer side by highlighting her role in raising five children and 23 foster kids.
Some at Monday's event said they were giving Bachmann a close look and could see supporting her at February's caucus.
Marv Dillavou, a firearms salesman, said he's not ready to commit to a candidate but likes what he's seen from Bachmann.Comment on this story
"I'm happy to see a serious female candidate. She's very accomplished," Dillavou said. Critics, he added, "make too much of every word, every innuendo gets blown out of proportion. It's good that she speaks her mind."
Democrats weren't as kind.
"Congresswoman Bachmann talks about reclaiming the American Dream but her policies would erode the path to prosperity for middle-class families," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin said Bachmann "does not have a single success that she has delivered for Minnesotans — just a long record of divisive rhetoric, extreme policy positions, hypocrisy and shameless self-promotion."