While Herman Cain and Rick Perry chip away at Mitt Romney, does Michele Bachmann deserve a second look?
The winner of the Iowa straw poll fell far back in the field after her last-place showing on Florida's Presidency 5 ballot.
Low on money ($1.5 million cash on hand) and marginalized in the mainstream media, the Minnesota congresswoman appears to be as much of a longshot as Rick Santorum or Gary Johnson (who?).
But amid all the backbiting and sniping by others during Tuesday night's CNN Debate in Las Vegas, Bachmann turned in a solid performance. As Romney and Perry repeatedly tried to explain away their liberal records, Bachmann stayed on message. And while an exasperated Romney laid a patronizing hand on Perry's shoulder, no one landed a glove on the congresswoman or her white tunic.
Bachmann did dish it out, however.
She likened Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan to a European-style value-added tax -- a charge that the Georgia businessman did not effectively refute.
Bachmann laid out the most compelling and coherent plan to stanch illegal immigration -- a refreshing departure from every other candidate on the stage.
In voting against Wall Street bailouts, she stood apart from Romney, Perry and Cain -- all of whom supported them in true corporate collaboration.
Unafraid to criticize former President George W. Bush, Bachmann excoriated politicians of both parties who "overstep their bounds and intervene in the private market, insisting on bailouts."
Appropriately, she reserved her toughest critique for Barack Obama.
"We need to repeal Obamacare, repeal the Jobs and Housing Destruction Act known as Dodd-Frank. President Obama's plan has been a plan for destruction for this economy and failure. I plan to change that," she declared, referencing her newly packaged 11-point economic plan.
Whether it's Romney or Perry or Obama, the congresswoman's charge of "crony capitalism" hits home. Of the candidates on the stage Tuesday night, only Bachmann and Ron Paul have records that can credibly make that charge stick. But Paul's libertarianism muddles his message on immigration and will forever make him unpalatable to a majority of Republicans.
Cain is a tea party favorite, but Bachmann chairs the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S, House and doesn't have his baggage of supporting bailouts and once sitting on a regional Federal Reserve board. Cain's loose comments about an electrified border fence and the daily dismantling of his centerpiece policy proposal suggest the bubble may be bursting.
Bachmann, as a Republican politician, isn't above a little political triangulating, of course. Her carte-blanche defense of foreign aid to Israel blatantly caters to Jewish and evangelical voters. And her separate references to U.S. intervention in "Libya" and "Africa" were liberally mocked by bloggers who miss Sarah Palin.
But the former tax attorney is no airhead.One pundit tracking the GOP race noted her ability to relate the country's financial turmoil to women's concerns: "Her riff on foreclosures was passionate and connected."
Similarly, Bachmann's unstinting assault on Obamacare is the most comprehensive critique coming from the GOP field. She explains, more effectively than any of her rivals, the deep legal and fiscal ramifications of the law. She was the only candidate Tuesday night who relayed the important development that the "administration is arguing with itself" over the quiet demise of CLASS, the long-term care provision of the law.
If any of the GOP front-runners had her consistency and credibility on the issue, they would be far more formidable foes against Obama.
Tuesday night's fractious debate was Romney's toughest grilling to date. It exposed his shortcomings on substance and frequently cramped his style.
Though many in the Republican establishment are trying to lock down the nomination for him early, rank-and-file voters are still shopping around -- as evidenced by Romney's inability to garner more than 30 percent in any national poll.
Because big money and the mainstream media are so heavily stacked against her, Bachmann's best hope is to score a repeat victory in Iowa 75 days from now. As other second-tier candidates fall by the wayside, she could continue to scoop up support.
The ban on winner-take-all primaries before April 1 may enable her to accumulate enough votes to stay in the hunt. It's a longshot, but as she accurately recalls, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson topped the national polls at this point in 2007.
With middle-of-the-road strategist Ed Rollins gone, Team Bachmann's chances may have improved. Call it addition by subtraction.
Whatever happens, the GOP vetting process is better off for Bachmann's intensity and energy. At the very least, her no-nonsense stand on the border would make her a vastly better Homeland Security secretary than Janet Napolitano.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The GOP must first identify the candidate who can beat Obama. Could that candidate be Michele Bachmann after all?
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or (772) 801-5341.